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Wild Food Festival BeetleIn the late 1990s I was lucky enough to periodically work with two of the doyens of advertising in New Zealand, Kim Wicksteed and James Hall.

Apart from their hunger to deliver the best, the thing I noticed about the Saatchi boys was their readiness to embrace the unlikely or unattractive, and use it to communicate and engage.

They called this philosophy “hugging the shadow” and used it to great effect. From the Absolutely Positively Wellington campaign to the original bugger campaign with Toyota, they owned the market for over a decade.

I’m not sure if Mike Keenan has ever studied the theory of advertising, but the Hokitika Wild Food Festival is a spectacularly successful demonstration of hugging the shadow. Over the last two decades, Mike and his Westland crew have taken a rough-as-guts stereotype, applied a good-as-gold West Coast implementation, and delivered up a colourful event that draws 15,000 visitors to the unlikely venue.

When I walked up to the information stand at last weekend’s 23rd annual Wild Food Festival, the smiling local offered me the choice of a pig tattoo or a bottle of chlamydia. The purple tattoo was temporary, and the bottle a cleverly engineered campaign to raise awareness of sexual health, but again the overall effect is to take the unlikely and use it to engage directly.

This year there were over 70 stalls delivering up everything from flambeed grasshoppers on toast, to rabbit pate and colostrum dessert. And of course the whitebait. I don’t know if there is any formal price control in place, but nothing costs much over $5, which means $50 will buy you 10 weighty whitebait patties, reason enough to make the migration.

The great thing about Hokitika is that it’s damn awkward to get to. This virtually forces you to take a road trip through the Godzone landscape and find out first-hand how different towns undertake destination marketing. My observations are that some have got their poop-in-a-scoop better than others.

On the outskirts of Havelock, a large billboard explains you are entering the Greenlip Mussel capital of the world, but there’s only one mussel cafe and it was closed. I resorted to the local Four Square, apparently the only place you can pick up the delicious treat, after none of the locals had the time to advise a tourist where to buy. Hopefully they do a better job at their mussel festival.

Ad Feedback Other small towns present a more unified campaign to snare the tourist dollar. Former gold town Ross is a great example. I called in to look at an old Moto-Guzzi for sale, but then got told that I had to check out the pub.

Arriving at the pub, our hostess Hillary welcomed my family and me, and extolled the virtues of the art gallery. And then once we were at the art gallery, told me the story of the town.

Good destination marketing is about taking a visitor-centred approach to the economic development of a location, then integrating the interests of visitors, residents and service providers. Ross personifies community-based destination marketing at its best.

Meanwhile, back at the Wild Foods Festival, costumes are the latest craze with competitions for the best-dressed, much like Wellington’s Rugby Sevens. And this year the place was overrun by zombies, including a fair number who appeared to have just escaped from a hospital.

Today the Hokitika Wild Food festival has to be capped at 15,000 tickets, brings in over $3 million of revenue over two days, and you need to book accommodation almost a year out. Hugging the shadow has paid in spades for this town of 3000.

It has required a peculiar kind of vision, courage, bloody-mindedness and a fair dollop of sheer luck – but they’ve nailed it. Their success is well-deserved and widely recognised. But where are the other shadow-huggers when we need them?

If quality local marketing ideas can be judged by the length of time that the concept lingers in your head, then they seem to be few and far between nowadays. Havelock staged their annual Mussel Festival on Saturday. I’m not sure if they took any advice from Hokitika or Ross, but they could do a lot worse.

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