Under the cover of darkness, 4:30 a.m. Aug. 22, I set off for Provincetown, MA, a top LGBT summer destination located at the tip of beachy Cape Cod. Cape traffic can be pretty miserable, though not at that hour, and so in those peaceful early morning hours, iced-coffee in hand, glowing sun rising above the open highway ahead of me, I began thinking about the first task on my day’s agenda. It had been a long time since I painted totally buff male models head to toe in glittering gold paint… but I was looking forward to the challenge (she smiles).
In all seriousness, these models were a component of American Express’s presence in the Provincetown Carnival Festival parade. Thanks to handling agency Grand Central Marketing of New York City, I experienced the work and coordination necessary to represent a brand as a street team member during one of the wildest parades I’d ever seen—think Norman Rockwell in drag on an impeccably crafted float with bumping music. Oh, and with beads. Lots of beads.
Carnival is a 35-year-old, weeklong celebration of P-Town’s open and accepting culture, and not only did American Express serve as an official sponsor, it also activated a pop-up for the summer promoting its Shop Small Provincetown campaign (see story here). For the parade, American Express secured a vintage cream-colored convertible Corvette with temporary branded decals on which our star, Raja, season 3 winner of VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” rode. There were six brand ambassadors completing the entourage sporting nothin’ but gold body paint and gold biker shorts. Really, really tiny gold biker shorts.
Two days prior to the trip I received a detailed itinerary with a rundown of the schedule and what to wear. We met at 10:30 a.m. on parade day (the parade began at 3:00) at a rented apartment and established tasks and a timeline for transporting our people to the parade staging area before major roads closed. We divided uniforms—white branded t-shirts and blue branded shades; shorts and shoes of our choice—and with two of the four models on-site, we began mixing paint. It took the first two models to develop just the right formula of gold powder and water-soluble solution for application, proving that it pays to leave time for trial and error. When the final two models arrived, we had cut our full-body painting time in half to 30 minutes. After shuttling to the staging area we took two wagons to pick up 25,000 beads packed the day before into branded reusable shopping bags, and two soft coolers for cold waters and granola bar snacks.
Back onsite, we prepared props—two extra-large and two small blow-up dice to incorporate this year’s parade theme “Viva Las Vegas.” Thirty minutes prior to launch we touched up the models and posed for group photos before establishing our line of march: A brand ambassador and myself as guardians of the Corvette on each side; two in front, and two in back pulling wagons full of beads. We each carried a branded bag of beads, stringing some on our arms in preparation.
Managing the beads became a slight source of stress for me, because spectators young and old begged for them and, most surprisingly, they were extra excited because ours were silver. Who would’ve thunk it? For the 2.5-mile parade route we smiled, bedazzled spectators and stopped so consumers could take pictures with Raja and our models. We happily lost ourselves in the energy of it all.
The only real struggles along the way involved beads and overzealous fans. We ran out of beads at one point, requiring two BAs to sprint to the pop-up to pick up more. Luckily, this parade moves slowly and they executed this task seamlessly. Then came enthusiastic parade goers who wanted to “help us” pass out our breads. We simply asked them to let us keep our formation looking good and they backed off. At the end of the parade, we walked back to home base and gave the models shampoo and fresh towels to shower with and remove the paint. We gathered and chatted about the day’s successes. My feet hurt, but oh, they hurt so good.
And what did I learn? Because we were at street level we came face-to-face with consumers (a few other brands were high up on decorated trailers). We placed beads around their necks and doled out high-fives. It was so satisfying to make people happy. Our team proved the importance of making expectations clear ahead of time (thinking of the half-naked models, here); of recruiting ambassadors who don’t mind a little sweat, who have a sense of humor—and, most importantly—ambassadors that have a deep respect for on-brand sensibility and local tradition, awesomely wild as it may be.
From the October issue