Stepping up to the plate

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2005

If you're one of the more than 1 million estimated divers in Florida, Mote Marine Laboratory has you firmly in its sights.

That's because the Sarasota-based marine research institution has launched phase two of its relatively new and already hugely successful coral reef license plate campaign. It's reaching out to every dive shop and club in Florida to persuade their customers and members that buying the specialty tag will help Florida's coral reefs flourish once again.

"It's basic marketing 101," says marketing manager Carol Harwood. "Know your audience and communicate with them."

From late November 2003, when the license plate was introduced, to late May this year, 35,120 have been sold statewide at a $25 premium over the cost of a regular plain-Jane orange tag. That's a windfall to Mote of $878,000 in almost 18 months, says Harwood. Mote gets 100 percent of that money, keeps 37.5 percent for coral reef research, education and conservation, and apportions 37.5 percent through a grant application process to other marine research institutions like Key West-based Reef Relief. (Mote scientists also are eligible for these grants). Mote is using its share to monitor coral bleaching, cultivate coral for reef restoration, study the effects of red tide on coral, and study the diseases that are affecting coral. Mote earmarks 25 percent for administering and marketing the program. In 2004, the coral reef tag ranked No. 6 in new-issue specialty plate sales; not bad, considering Floridians have more than 100 specialty plates to choose from.

To reach that impressive figure, Harwood initially targeted tax collectors and their employees. After a series of press conferences featuring Philippe Cousteau, grandson of undersea adventurer Jacques Cousteau, the Mote communications department mailed 10-by-12-inch point-of-purchase counter displays to all 167 Department of Motor Vehicle offices along with flyers touting the environmental and economic impact of Florida's coral reefs.

According to Mote, the state's 220-mile coral reef tract-the third largest barrier reef in the world and the only one in North American waters-is home to more than 25 percent of all known marine species, and the waters surrounding it contribute more than 20 million pounds of commercially harvested seafood each year. More than 3 million residents and tourists visit the coral reefs each year and contribute $790 million to Florida's economy. "The message was, and continues to be, protect our reefs, protect our economy," says Harwood.

Last April, Harwood ran a contest for DMV workers in Sarasota, Manatee and Hillsborough counties. Workers who sold 15 plates earned Mote memberships; the top 10 sellers got to accompany Mote scientists on a shark-tagging mission. In January, she attended the tax collectors' state conference to talk up the plate program. "If I had to choose one thing that really worked, it was getting the tax collectors excited about the plate and also the people who work in the offices," she says. "They're the front lines. It's like anything in business; you have to get them excited."

Tremendous groundwork was laid before the plate was launched, of course. "It's time-intensive and costly to get a plate approved," Harwood cautions. Mote conceived the coral reef plate project about five years ago, got the 15,000 required signatures and paid a $60,000 fee to the state. The process took about 18 months.

The total amount spent in 2004 on marketing, including key chains, coffee mugs, T-shirts for DMV employees, POP displays, 25,000 direct-mail postcards and other collateral materials, was $29,505.

Harwood credits the plate's appeal to its bright colors and the fact that it depicts fish, coral and, importantly, a dive flag. Over 100 dive shops are now displaying the coral reef license plate materials. "There are over 1 million divers in Florida, and that's certainly a big enough number for me to work with," she says.

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