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Prepare Oregon goes national

• American Red Cross selects Portland ad agency Nerve for big campaign

Portland advertising agency Nerve will make its first foray into the national spotlight when a campaign it designed for the Washington, D.C.-based American Red Cross makes its debut in February.

Nerve is known locally for creating compelling ads for such high-profile clients as car dealer Scott Thomason and the image-challenged Portland Trail Blazers.

But it was a campaign the agency created last year for the Red Cross Oregon Trail chapter, which includes Portland, that caught the attention of national Red Cross leaders.

Michele O'Hara, president of Nerve, says the prestige of working for a national organization with such high name recognition could attract other prominent clients to her agency.

'Getting that first client to take a chance (with us) is the key,' she said. Now the agency has an opportunity to prove that Nerve 'is capable on a national basis,' she said.

With revenues of $9.2 million in 2001, Nerve is ranked by the Portland Business Journal as fifth Ñ up from 23rd in 2000 Ñ among Portland's top 25 advertising agencies.

The agency has done some national work for Oregon-based Mentor Graphics on a business-to-business level, representing the company to other firms.

'That's not the same as working for public national clients like the American Red Cross,' O'Hara said. The Red Cross 'is a nationally known brand. People know of them but don't really know all that they do.'

Sue Hildick, director of the Oregon Trail chapter, said the simplicity and success of the Oregon campaign impressed Red Cross leaders across the country.

'Other chapters saw that our campaign could be easily applied to other communities,' Hildick said. 'It evolved into an idea that it should be a national initiative.'

Dubbed 'Prepare Oregon,' the local campaign began last January with three simple directives that have been used in Oregon Trail ads and promotional materials: 'Build a kit. Make a plan. Get trained.' Recently, the chapter added a fourth message: 'Give blood.'

Nerve staff members incorporated these messages into eye-catching posters, print and broadcast ads and billboards, putting tools from a disaster kit Ñ flashlights, wrenches, Band-Aids Ñ into the shape of the agency's logo, a red cross.

The campaign, conducted through most of this year, cost about $110,000 to produce. The national organization will reimburse the Oregon Trail chapter for those costs.

But "Prepare Oregon" was worth at least $1 million in marketing costs that the chapter didn’t have to pay. Thanks to efforts by Nerve and another Portland ad agency, Leopold Ketel & Partners, many of the state’s print and broadcast media ran ads and public service announcements free of charge.

As a result, Hildick said, the Oregon Trail chapter saw an increase in visits to its Web site, sales of disaster-preparedness kits and enrollment in Red Cross classes.

This success attracted the attention first of individual chapters across the country (Connecticut is about to launch a 'Prepare Connecticut' campaign using the same messages and images) and then the national headquarters.

Nerve competed with seven other agencies for the national project, O'Hara said.

For the national campaign, Nerve will use some of the same messages and images created for the Oregon project. But the campaign also will try to update the image of the Red Cross, which was founded in America by nurse Clara Barton in 1881.

O'Hara said Nerve's research shows that public attitudes about the Red Cross have changed since the 1950s, when people automatically trusted the well-respected organization.

'Today, big institutions and corporations in general are not automatically trusted,' she said. 'Now you have to show people how and why they should become involved.'

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted the Red Cross to take stock, she said. The attacks made the public more aware of the need to be prepared for disaster.

At the same time, trust in the Red Cross dropped because of controversy over the way the national agency handled millions of dollars in contributions that poured in after the attacks.

The national campaign will include three television ads, at least six radio spots, an Internet component and ideas for retail items, O'Hara said.

Meanwhile, Nerve will continue to work with the local chapter. It will consult on its next projects: surveying Portland area residents to find out if they actually are preparing for disasters, and asking people to pledge to do something Ñ have a kit on hand, donate blood or take classes Ñ to be prepared.