The real highlight of the annual Covered Bridge Festival in Mansfield, Indiana, isn't a bridge at all. It's Potty Palooza.
"People walk from half a mile away," says John Baker, a festival organizer. No wonder: Charmin's 27-room traveling bathroom facility, painted sky blue with white clouds and latched to the bed of an 18-wheeler, inspires awe wherever it goes. "It's like a ride at the state fair," Baker marvels. "They wait in line 10 to 15 minutes sometimes!"
Depending on your point of view, Potty Palooza represents either the epitome or the nadir of experiential marketing — a branding vehicle that touches consumers in places no advertising campaign would go. It's a showroom on wheels, a rolling free trial for . . . toilet paper.
"The media is fracturing, costs are rising," says John Brase, Charmin's brand manager at Procter & Gamble. "It's difficult to reach consumers these days." Unless you've got a big semi and a trailer fitted with flushing porcelain toilets, hardwood floors, and air-conditioning — plus aromatherapy, skylights, changing stations, a "Little Squirts" stall for kids, and an LCD video screen in every room.
Since its debut in 2002, the Potty Palooza truck has been on the road 11 months a year, visiting 26 to 30 events annually — from the Super Bowl to the Arizona Balloon Festival. All told, Charmin's 5 million annual guests go through some 10,000 cushioned rolls. (A supply truck joins in the Potty Palooza caravan.)
As guests wait, they take part in the full branding experience. The Charmin Bear teaches the Charmin dance while smiling brand reps guide visitors to and from stalls and spruce up rooms after every use. At the Covered Bridge Festival, that can mean cleaning up after 5,000 guests a day. Says Alicia Haith, who directs the Palooza road team: "We can't budge when that thing is full. We have to empty the black water 5 to 10 times a day."
Yuck. Is it worth it? Brase claims the truck is part of one of the biggest consumer sampling programs anywhere. And while P&G won't talk ROI, it's getting something right. After Potty Palooza made its first appearance at the Covered Bridge Festival in 2002, 30,000 people signed a petition to keep it coming back.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.