Having trouble keeping your dog safe from zombies? Worried about the wandering undead messing up your neatly manicured lawn?
A regional hardware chain with nine stores in Omaha, Council Bluffs and Lincoln is tackling those challenges — and plenty of other zombie-related concerns — with an advertising campaign that's catching the attention of local customers as well as zombie enthusiasts from around the world.
Westlake Ace Hardware's Zombie Preparedness Center, which was dreamed up by the Omaha public relations and advertising agency Bozell, was rolled out last week. In area stores, workers put up how-to posters ("A Human's Guide to Zombie Preparedness," for example, offers tips on purchasing the right power tools, cleaners and door locks to keep zombies at bay) and handed out "Zombie Prepared" buttons. On the company's website, "zombies" was added to a list of store specialties, alongside more standard topics like "fasteners" and "Benjamin Moore paint."
Facebook fans of the effort — more than 1,300 people had "liked" the page in less than three days — can now gather virtual tools for "zombie-proofing" a wall.
"I love the tone," said Liz Benditt, Westlake's director of customer relationship development. "If we can help you with your lawn and your home, we can help you with the zombie apocalypse."
It's an unusual approach for a business that typically depends on more traditional methods of marketing and interacting with customers. But Benditt said it's a risk that makes sense for the Lenexa, Kan.-based chain, which has 88 stores in the Midwest and Southwest.
Over the past few years, working with Bozell, the company has put a bigger emphasis on its ability to provide knowledgeable service in addition to tools and paint and light bulbs.
When Bozell suggested that Westlake use the same approach with zombies, there was a bit of hesitation.
But the team that put together the concept assured the hardware chain that it had done its research.
Zombies, it seems, are having a bit of a moment in pop culture, taking a starring role in television shows and video games and becoming a popular theme for parties and bar crawls. According to the National Retail Federation, it will be one of the top five adult Halloween costumes this year, jumping from No. 22 on last year's list.
And the people at Bozell found something else interesting: In a state-by-state ranking of zombie-related Internet searches, Nebraska ranked No. 7. Kansas and Oklahoma, which also have Westlake stores, were 6 and 8, respectively.
Though zombie fans come from all walks of life, Bozell found that many were part of a younger demographic that Westlake was interested in reaching: the 20- or 30-somethings who might prefer a big box store without thinking about trying a smaller hardware store.
Zombies, they figured, were a perfect tool to bridge the gap.
"There's a lot of concern and interest in zombies," said Scott Rowe, partner in charge of digital marketing at Bozell. "So we're giving people a chance to engage — and realize that Westlake is a good option."
The Bozell team of seven came up with the idea about two weeks before it went live. Once it was OK'd by Westlake it was time to figure out how to make it more than a gimmick.
The eventual plan was to play it straight, using the expert help angle to tackle zombies like a very real problem — fixable, of course, with the right type of hardware.
Westlake's online zombie defense guide includes a 20-point "frequently asked questions" section. Sample question: "A zombie fell and put a hole in my drywall. What tools will I need to fix this?" The store suggests patching up zombie-shape drywall holes with spackle, a putty knife and sandpaper.
"We'd seen lots of other companies using zombies, but what we offer directly plays in with things that you can actually get," said Scott Bishop, Bozell's director of social influence.
It's too early to tell if the interest in zombies will translate to more spackle, putty knives and sandpaper flying off the shelves.
But the impact on web traffic is clear.
On Wednesday, the first day of the campaign, the number of hits on Westlake's website doubled from the day before. By week's end the total volume of traffic had shot up by 17 percent.
On Twitter, the campaign has drawn mentions from as far away as the Philippines.
Bozell plans to keep adding new elements to the campaign throughout the month, including more marketing from the zombie perspective: Westlake shoppers might spot "A Zombie's Guide to Delaying Your Decay" posted in the store. (The poster suggests using bolts and fasteners to help with broken bones and stain sealer for a spray tan.
In local stores, managers and employees are playing along.
Mike Dowling, manager of the Westlake store at 84th Street and West Center Road in Omaha, said shoppers seem to be enjoying the zombie theme. Some of his employees even asked if they could come to work in costume.
He said he appreciated the enthusiasm, but wanted to stay professional. The goal, he said, is to show new shoppers that it's a place they can trust.
"That's our biggest thing: We're trying to get that younger crowd that don't know they can come here, get all of their questions answered," he said.
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