art car parade

Art Car Parade Week: My Marketing Experiment Using Event Appearances to Push Internet Sales

art car parade
Art Car Parade week and Brycen is a star in his custom ArtCar Brand art car parade shirt.

It’s art car parade week, so I’m attending all the pre-parade events to sell shirts in person. This was not the business plan. But the business plan went south when a group of local art car artists boycotted.

Didn’t go to my website in droves like they had promised. My business plan went from, “if you build it, they will come,” to just showing up with the shirts at events.

My History with Art Car Parade Week

Two years ago almost to the day, I had shown up at the annual Houston Art Car Parade, presented by the Orange Show Foundation for Visionary Art. After parking my art car in its designated spot for the pre-parade party. I executed my plan. I went around with my best friend, a professional photographer, and shot photos of every vehicle whose maker would sign a release granting me complete ownership of the picture of their car.

Only a handful declined because most people said they loved the shirt I was wearing and wanted their car to be on one just like it.


Art Car Parade
The shirt that started it all – my vintage ArtCar Brand retro-style shirt.

The shirt was a prototype — a Hawaiian-style casual shirt with pictures of art cars printed on a light blue background. I had the fabric printed and the shirt made in Hong Kong for just this purpose. The latest step in a years-long attempt to turn a dream into reality. Everything went fine until it didn’t.

Just as the new shirts were arriving a rumor started that turned hundreds of orders into a handful. Someone claimed to have a legal interest in one of the vehicles and said I had no right to use the image. She turned the Art Car community against me, got my Facebook pages deleted, and threatened to sue me. It turned out she didn’t have a leg to stand on, but she started a boycott that’s still alive. At least that’s the excuse I was given for disallowing shirt sales at this year’s parade. The official in charge barred me from being a vendor — even though I was willing to pay the sponsorship fee. This was after giving me the runaround for a couple of months. Her reason? Some members of the art car community didn’t like the way I handled the deal.

I decided to defy the ban and see if I could convince people to visit my website and buy shirts.

Monday of Art Car Parade Week at FM Kitchen and Bar

Good thing I have my friend Connie join me. She keeps me there long enough to do some good, maybe. It’s so good to watch her work. She jumps right into selling the shirt I’m wearing–  whether they want to hear the sales pitch or not. We meet some friendly people who like the shirt. And one who knows about the boycott. She tells us what she heard, and Connie realizes the depth of the problem I’ve been grappling with for two years. “You have to right a wrong by letting them know the truth of what happened,” she says.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of marketing information I get comes from that same woman: she doesn’t own a shirt that cost 50 bucks and doesn’t intend to. Too expensive. Bingo — the artists are not your market. This is a shocker for Connie. Her immediate reaction is to give them a discount.

While talking to a friendly couple, she offers the shirt for $35, tonight only. They aren’t even art car artists. Connie takes two flyers out of my pocket and hands them to the couple.

art car parade
Art Car Week is full of activities leading up to the parade.

FM Kitchen and Bar turns out to be the perfect place to have an art car event. The outdoor beer garden faces the large parking lot. You can touch the art cars in the first parking row from the beer garden. Every time a new one shows up, everybody watches. They should have all the art car events here.

There’s a guy selling jewelry made of flattened silverware next to his art car in the front row. I hear him say $40. Only 10 bucks less than the price of my shirt. So at least he wasn’t selling them for $10. I find that comforting.

First Lesson Learned from the 2018 Art Car Parade Week

What did I learn at this event? I learned that showing up wearing my shirt is step one. Hanging out being seen is step two. Engaging with people is step three toward acceptance. In a perfect world, the boycott woman heard my side of the story. It will sink in eventually. Maybe she’ll spread the word. But the artists themselves are a tiny fraction of my market at best.

I realize the candidate for buying my shirt needs to appreciate the vision and find it appealing. They have to want one in order to overcome the price hurdle. It has to have the appeal of a “must-have.” Can I create that or do I just have to find the people who already have it? After 45 years in advertising, you’d think I could solve a classic marketing problem. Throwing money at it would help, but I can’t afford it.

But I reluctantly admit that Connie has a point about giving the artists a price break. It is the best way to move some inventory, get my shirt in circulation, gain acceptance with the art car artists, and, most importantly, show appreciation for their participation.

Tuesday of Art Car Parade Week at University of Houston

The art car event at University of Houston turns out to be part of a particular event called, “Counter Current Festival.” The art cars are there to help open a week of art happenings including performances, visuals, and exhibitions intended to explore the boundaries of art and open people’s minds.

art car parade
Gerry Waters (riding Hippysaurus), Thali Waters (on left) and Sacha Waters (on right) said the parade experience was fantastic. (Photo: Lana Rigsby) The Buzz Magazines

The schedule has the cars loading in at 3 pm and the performance at 6 pm. I have prepared myself to actually participate if it seems like a good idea when I arrive. I go early to get a good parking spot because I know how hard that is on campus.

I’m taking this step not knowing what to expect. Each step informs the next.

Art Car Parade Week Event Marketing Experience One Step at a Time

I decide to pass up the spot where the art cars are parked. I’m in old familiar territory outside the Jack Valenti School of Communications where I earned a degree and spent some time much later as an adjunct professor. As I look for a place to park, my objective evolves and I end up exploring the campus. There are changes everywhere. Even on my way to campus, Yates High School had looked entirely different because of a gigantic new building. I finally find some visitor parking. It turns out to be at the exact same latitude as the art cars and not a very long a walk.

As I approach, I see one of the artists acting like a like a tour guide or docent confronting a group of students that are passing by. “They’re art cars,” I hear her say as she wrangles the students for a closer look. The time machine car is there. I had met the owner last night. Another person lacking the burning desire to have one of my shirts. She’s celebrating her 21st year of parade participation. She proudly announced that this latest art car is brand new. She drove it home from the dealership and immediately began sanding the factory finish off so she could begin its transformation to art. That takes guts. That takes passion. But not the kind it takes to “get” my shirt.

Her license plate says “MAP OF SPACE AND TIME” with a handmade, look-alike extension carrying the SPACE AND TIME part. Apparently, she is a concept person with a plan. On close inspection I see how much imagination—and possibly scientific knowledge (geek?) went into it. The small items attached to the car suggest a spaceship or time machine.

Courtesy of ABC13 Houston

Another Lesson Learned during Art Car Parade Weekend

The big marketing realization for me is that these pre-parade events are not good places to market my shirts. It’s the next step after Monday’s recognition when I realized the artists are not my market. The only people who know about these pre-parade events seem to be the artists. That means the cars in the parking lot aren’t driven by art car enthusiasts. This greatly diminishes the need to put flyers on their windshields as it will not likely produce the desired effect.

Instead, I stick some flyers on bulletin boards at the communications, art and architectural buildings. On my way out, a few more go into the campus information bins and some stickers in places that are non-destructive.

I drive away wondering how the boycott could entirely wipe out the initial enthusiasm for the shirts. From this same group of people, I went from mass hysteria for the shirt to mass hysteria against the shirt. Art car artists were throwing money at me. There was no doubt in my mind that I was onto something.

Now I have a classic marketing problem. The demographic profile of my target defies categorization. It’s possible that it has nothing at all to do with art cars. Art cars may be intrinsically abhorrent to people who identify as car people. It’s more about crazy shirt people. And that includes a lot of art car artists, but that’s still a minuscule part of the population, so it almost doesn’t matter.

Embracing Social Media as Part of My Art Car Parade Weekend Marketing Plan

I might as well just post to Facebook that I’m offering a discount during art car week – which is what I did yesterday on the page of the Houston Art Car Klub. And that is why I’m going to the welcome party happy hour tomorrow night. I offered a discount to all artists and volunteers, and a deeper cut to anyone who would join the club or is a current member.

I’m stressing less as I go through the week. Armed with the knowledge that these artist events are not my market, I’m focusing on the parade itself. Thousands of people and parked cars are interested enough in the freak show to be in one place for several hours. I’ll let the team roam the lineup while I put flyers on cars in parking lots.

art car parade

Five-year-old Brycen, Connie’s grandson, is the most critical part of my sales team. He’s cute in his shirt. He’s at the perfect stage of development to be asked by every adult about that shirt he’s wearing. And when he says, “Bill made it,” he is entirely adorable. He’ll love taking the money, and he’s really getting the hang of counting, adding and subtracting. Just in case someone wants to buy one on the spot.

I won’t have much room for shirts in the car with five people riding along. Maybe I should let someone else drive while I roam the parking lots with windshield flyers.

art car parade

Courtesy Last Concert Cafe

Wednesday of Art Car Parade Week at the Houston Art Car Klub (HACK) Welcome Party for Out-of-Town Artists in the Last Concert Cafe

The temperature at happy hour is perfect for wearing the art car shirt. I’m thrilled that I can be comfortable going out without outerwear. It’s delightful, and I want people to see the shirt without obstruction. I soon find myself face to face in the buffet line with one of the artists who ordered a spreadsheet worth of shirts. I should have accepted her offer of cash up front because she didn’t buy any. She doesn’t seem to notice the shirt, and my tongue isn’t loose enough to say anything. A perfect selling opportunity missed. But I put flyers on her cars. I see that she has at least three of her entourage there.

Maybe she’s over her unfounded fear of the woman who started the trouble.

Across a wide passageway from where I sit alone to eat, I see the artist who made the most abrupt turn from supporter to a detractor. I think, “this is the perfect opportunity to go over and try to bury the hatchet. On second thought, nope. I prefer to get even by being successful in spite of him.”

art car parade

Two Strangers and a Case of Mistaken Identity during Art Car Parade Week

Two guys come over and very enthusiastically say hello. They sit down with me. It turns out they have me mixed up with someone else. They say I look just like him. It’s not just anybody else – it’s someone I know.

In fact, his picture is on my shirt, and he is one of the few artists who has purchased one. I never noticed the resemblance. Indeed, it’s not a spitting image situation. I tell them he’s on my shirt. But do I get up and help them to find him on my shirt? Do I call attention to my shirt? Of course not. Could it be more evident that I need a wingman salesperson?

Instead, I fantasize going over to the HACK table and making a scene. Inspired somewhat by the fact that the woman at the door knew my first name. “They know I’m the shirt guy and they’re ignoring me on purpose,” I thought. “Did they not get the memo on Facebook or are they ignoring it on purpose? If I go over there and make the discount offer, I’m giving in to their bullshit. Nope.”

Art Car Parade Week People Watching is a Favorite Activity for Most

I have to admit there is a lot of camaraderie going on. It feels like a reunion. People watching is a favorite activity of many people during art car week.

I see a woman who bought one of my shirts. She’s not wearing it. I wouldn’t call her an enthusiastic supporter, but she sure as hell didn’t let the boycott prevent her from the passion of getting one of my shirts.

Fortunately, there is one enthusiastic supporter who shows up. I’m lucky enough to be out in the street when he rolls up in his sprawling vintage red convertible, tooting his cow horn. He’s proudly sporting the shirt he bought from me last month. I couldn’t ask for a better ambassador. He’s big, loud, wild and loves the shirt. Apparently, he had that burning desire most of the artists don’t. He had looked me up out of the blue, said he had to have a shirt. Met me in a parking lot and paid cash. Said the only reason he hadn’t acted sooner was money. Really? He says he’s an architect, so I don’t know what to make of that.

I end up spending a lot of time in the street. Putting flyers on car windshields. It’s a target-rich environment. The ones that aren’t here for the art car event are here for some other kind of art. Or they wouldn’t be in this art studio enclave. I hit me right after I pull off one of my amazing parallel parking feats. I should teach a class in parallel parking.

Thursday of Art Car Parade Week and a Sneak Peak at Discovery Green

art car parade

The party is fun at Discovery Green. The organizers really up their game with the addition of the band playing in front of the convention center instead of on the stage. That puts them where the art cars are lined up on Avenida de las Americas. Much more of a party atmosphere. Makes me kind of glad that I forgot my flyers. At least it makes me forget about marketing and just have fun. And I learn a lot.

The jewelry maker is here again. He doesn’t pay for a booth. He just sets up next to his car. Aha, the trick is to volunteer your car for every event. If I want to sell stuff, this is the best opportunity I have seen to do that so far. I’m not sure I want to turn the whole thing into a trade show. I’d rather sell online.

But online commerce isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’d much rather bask in the glow of people loving the shirt. Like that young teacher that I met here, she’s so elated to see the shirt on Connie. Looking all over it for the car she and her at-risk high school students created. She takes my card. Not so she can buy a shirt (no money—she’s a teacher). But she wants to send me a photo of the car, and I can respond in some way yet to be determined. I am happy she gets it, and I tell her so.

Art Car Parade Week Helps with a Better Understanding of my Market

She’s my market, but she’s not. She gets it but can’t afford it. They just enjoy the shirt from afar. I’m learning that having a following doesn’t always ring the cash register. But it does result in word of mouth.

The important thing tonight is the visibility of the shirts on a couple. Like the friend you ran into says, “you guys are beginning to dress alike.” It had never occurred to me that being a couple wearing the same outlandish attire is bigger than the sum of its parts. We’ll do it again for the ball if the beautiful weather holds out. Strong thunderstorms are supposed to wait until late night and the wee hours to usher in the next cold front. I’m hoping there will be news cameras with interviewers scouring the place for content like they are at this event.

I’m surprised Connie doesn’t photobomb the first video camera we pass. She lingers for a moment, trying to make a plan. She and I do get some lens time from a couple of different shooters covering the action. I’m hoping we show up on the front page of something in the morning.

I see one of the most prominent artists being interviewed by Univision. I had given her a shirt last year because she’s a teacher. She assigns her students an art car every year. She’s not wearing the shirt. She doesn’t acknowledge it when I talk to her. Nor does she recognize the boycott. She had ordered two for students before the boycott.

art car parade

Knowing Connie, she probably got a lot of lens time when she was on the dance floor. I couldn’t take the impact of the loudness right in front of the band, so I had to retreat back, back, back – to a spot where some of the decibels are absorbed by the clothing and skin of several layers of the audience.

Friday of Art Car Parade Week — it’s the Legendary Art Car Ball and the City Hall Reflection Pool

It’s Friday the 13th. The Art Car Ball certainly made a big deal of it on the wristband I’m wearing. Big bold black letters on an orange background. “Legendary Art Car Ball Friday, April 13th, Twenty Eighteen.”

art car parade

Does the date make people behave differently? Well, nobody is dressed like Freddy Kruger. It looks like they forgot all about it being Friday the 13th. It isn’t even mentioned during the costume contest by the three very tall transvestites who run it. They look like women, but Connie says no. She gets a lot closer than me when I take the picture that makes her look like a little girl next to them in their long, slinky dresses to the floor with built-in oversized bows at the neck. They have commentary to match — suitably catty. They make Connie, and I look boring in our art car shirts.

The good news is that we aren’t the only ones wearing them. Hey, maybe it’s a trend. No other designer can claim four people wearing their creation to the event, right? And with the assistant master of ceremonies of the parade wearing one tomorrow in the VIP area, this could be our big break.

That VIP coup is thanks to my friend Michelle who gave her shirt to her friend Deborah. I included flyers and cards for Deborah.

At this point, I feel like giving some shirts away. Would it help this one-on-one marketing plan work? I get a big boost of adrenaline when I see the guy with the red convertible. There he is, as soon as we get inside the venue, being an evangelist for the shirt. He’s sitting in a lawn chair next to his car.earing his shirt! When he sees me, he jumps up and takes me three cars down to introduce me to the artist of the “Pickup Truck” who also wants a shirt. He isn’t there, but I’ll find him at the parade. His truck is covered with guitar picks.

Saturday of Art Car Parade Week Culminates with the 31st Annual Art Car Parade on Allen Parkway and Downtown

Art Car Parade Week — Pre-Parade

art car paradeNo doubt my sound engineer friend will be wearing his shirt when I see him today at the parade. He’s such a trooper, lending me professional-level sound gear every year. Without the sound effects of a revving dragster engine, the prop wouldn’t get as many grins and outright laughs from the audience. It makes me grateful for the number of followers the shirt has found. Most of the credit goes to Connie. She’s a natural at this one-on-one selling at events. This year she’s been all over it. She’s bringing a friend with her today — another shirt to add to the five already on your team.

Art Car Parade Week — Post-Parade

Everybody loves the shirt. How could they not when there are five of them moving together in different sizes and shapes? Surrounded by the circus of outlandishness that is the pre-parade lineup. For two to four hours, it’s the best party in town.

We have a ton of fun. So it’ll icing on the cake if the business benefits. I pocket $70 cash, $70 more promised, and I’ll be surprised if I don’t get some emails from the contact section of the website. I’m telling them to hit contact for the discount.

Art Car Parade

Brycen is the star of the day, but Connie steals the show. She jumps out of the car with three shirts and chases the jewelry guy’s car going the opposite direction to give him the shirts he requested. Yes, the jewelry guy turns out to be a big fan of the shirts from way back. When we encounter him during the pre-parade, he’s so warm and friendly it makes me feel like I DID do the right thing making these shirts.

There are so many more cars than usual; it changes everything including the marketing of the shirts. Brycen and I never make it all the way to the front of the lineup because the team engaged so many people along the way. We actually run out of flyers – yay! We start handing out business cards.

By the end of the day, Brycen is approaching strangers at the restaurant with ARTCAR Brand business cards and telling them $35 each for the shirts. He is in his custom-made version of the shirt. Cowboy cut with red snaps, no less. He makes such an impression on the frat boys playing beanbag that they let him play and they’re hugging each other when we leave. But nobody buys.

More Marketing Surprises Come to a Head as Art Car Parade Week Builds to a Close

The surprise is that James is a better salesperson than Carly. He has no fear, approaching anybody and the girls love him. Such a trooper that he criticizes Carly for being too coy. Carly makes up for her “coyness” by selling a shirt to the creator of the Yoda Head car while me and the rest of the team are changing a flat on the way home.

A couple appears out of nowhere while I’m down on my knees with the jack; it turns out she’s the artist of the Yoda Head car (on the shirt) who I had spoken with twice at the parade.

art car parade
Brycen pitches in as we help someone with a tire change.

She and Carly start opening up shirt packages to make sure she gets one with her car on it. I’m not involved. This hand-to-hand combat is not for me. Thirty minutes later, Carly hands me 35 bucks. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t just set up on the side of the road somewhere faking car trouble and sell shirts to everybody who offers to help. I’ll pretend to be fixing the car and let Connie or Carly can sell shirts. Better yet, I’ll stay home and write blogs to attract buyers to my website.

Art Car Parade Week Prologue

No emails from people visiting the website. All those enthusiastic people, but not a single sale on the site from all those events. So much for taking it to the street.

The good news is the jewelry guy turned out to be the shirt’s number one fan. I found him the next day at the awards ceremony. He had his jewelry setup going great. He paid cash for the three shirts Connie dumped into his car.