Nearly a century ago, Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service, galvanizing a widespread movement to preserve the country’s heritage and promote tourism. At the time, President Wilson could only have imagined the technological and organizational tools that would help achieve these goals. And, almost guaranteed, not once did he imagine a huge part of this effort would be brought to us by the makers of mouthwatering granola bars.
Funny how things change.
As it happens, General Mills brand Nature Valley has embarked on an ambitious initiative called Trail View to bring the parks experience to the indoors- and outdoors-oriented alike. "Nature is something you have to get close to in order to be moved by it," says Scott Baldwin, Senior Marketing Manager at Nature Valley. "It’s easy to just show a picture of nature, but people want to have deeper experiences." To deliver that deeper experience, the company sent content-gathering teams throughout the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon this past summer to digitally capture 100 odd miles of each area, and replicate them online. Eventually, users will be able to experience, in real-time, a first-person perspective of hiking these trails, clicking on embedded points of interest along the way for pop-up information and videos. It’s a virtual hiking expedition anyone can take.
Although Nature Valley has long been a supporter of the national parks (it's practically in the brand name), most recently raising money through its "Preserve the Parks" campaign, the company had been brainstorming ideas for how to do more to actually preserve them. The resulting concept, developed through agency partner McCann-Erickson, is a model for how marketers can make a useful contribution to a cause without over-branding it. In addition to removing the barriers to entry so people can experience these trails remotely, Trail View will spread awareness of the parks at a time when funding is low, and digitally record them for posterity.
"This initiative lets [Nature Valley] stand for something," says Leslie Sims, executive creative director at McCann. "They aren’t just pushing granola bars on hikers."
It was only because of Nature Valley’s long-standing relationship with the National Park Conservation Association that the company was able to garner approval for the project. The parks are famously very protective when it comes to filming on their grounds, but the company approached each park individually and promised to leave zero impact on the environment.
Between March and June of 2011, Nature Valley and McCann-Erickson went to work, putting together a mixed team of talent for a project with many moving parts. The agency would need a content strategy team for web distribution, a design team that would also put together custom 360 degree photography equipment, a hiking team to lead the expedition, and a skilled camera person to shoot it all. The creatives would also have to participate in the fieldwork. Both figuratively and literally, there was a lot of ground to cover.
Content strategy firm InTheMO Interactive came aboard early on and recruited editors from Backpacker Magazine to lend their expertise in national park trails and lead the hikes. The project required a team with best-of-class designers who would also be able to hike, so the agency recruited digital agency Your Majesty. In a meeting with YM cofounder Jens Karlsson, Catherine Patterson, executive integrated producer at McCann, offered this simple plea: "You’re the only ones crazy enough to do this, and you’re the only ones who can do this. Also, you’re going to get to hike your asses off."
Everyone involved had to engage in four to six weeks of training to ensure that nobody would get dehydrated or otherwise crap out during the shoot. Each member of the crew logged 150 miles of mandatory hiking experience, done on their own time.
Because this initiative marks the first application of street view-style camera technology in hikes or on mountains, the cameras required specially designed backpack rigging. "A lot of equipment was involved," says Mat Bisher, associate creative director at McCann. "There’s a good reason why street view is done in cars." During a June test run in the Grand Canyon, the panoramic cameras fell apart and started melting during discovery. They were supposed to be heat-resistant up to 120 degrees, but not at sustained exposure to those conditions. After customizing the cameras further, the design team suggested saving the Grand Canyon for the final leg of the hike, where they’d know to anticipate the cameras falling apart eventually, rather than at the beginning of the trip.
The actual filming went off without a hitch, however, barring the occasional alarming grizzly bear scratch mark on trees. From a distance, the assembled masses would have looked like a caravan of settlers. The field crew from Backpacker Magazine (or "bear bait" as Patterson referred to them) headed up the front, setting the pace and keeping the operation environmentally sound. Shortly behind them were the agency creatives, who scouted locations and points of interest. The next wave included the tech team—who kept lenses clean, adjusted settings, and kept the cameras out of contact with each other—as well as master cameraman, Brandon McClain. Finally, trailing behind, was a sweeper team, who made sure nothing was left behind. Although some of the crew only stayed for shorter periods, the hike lasted 45 days total.
The biggest surprise along the way, according to Catherine Patterson, who stayed for the entire hike, was the sparse tourist traffic on the trails. "We anticipated having to avoid filming crowds, and blurring out logos when we did," she says, "but there was hardly anyone hiking at all some days." Seeing firsthand the lack of tourism in tough economic times only made the prospect of evangelizing the national parks more attractive to everyone involved.
The first stage of Trail View will debut online in February 2012. It will operate as its own platform, with an exploratory feel. Once the utility is up and running, Nature Valley will add layers for user-generated content, social networking and mobility, and perhaps form partnerships with travel sites—encouraging visitors to actually take a trip to visit the parks. Eventually the company hopes to digitally map other locations and build an educational, curated layer to the initiative. "This is not just a piece of entertainment," says Bisher. "We’re committing to an ongoing proposition." As this proposition is aligned with the National Park Service’s original goals, Woodrow Wilson would have likely approved.