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Winter 2001 Mad About the Cow

Just when you thought the public was no longer mad for cows and you packed away all that cutesy, country black-and-white moo-chandise, here comes Cows on Parade, marching to malls across North America. No mere milkers these; no Jerseys, Guernseys or Holsteins.

Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had nothing on the heat the Cows on Parade critters generate. The artsy 1999 fund-raiser in Chicago and elsewhere became a bovine bonanza for retailers everywhere.

You may have seen the “real” thing: life-size, fiberglass cows painted and decorated by artists. Or perhaps you’ve seen them in your own mall. And surely by now you’ve seen the licensed products: T-shirts, tote bags and more.

Cash cows

Here’s how it works: Event organizers for the city purchase several hundred of the 100-lb. cows, whose cost (reported to be $2,500 to $11,000 each) is usually underwritten by corporate sponsors and grants—Chicago received $100,000 from the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Community Affairs. Organizers award one of the all-white cows to each area artist who applies for and wins the privilege of painting it. The artists’ orders: be creative, go crazy, have fun. And feel free to give your cow creation a catchy name while you’re at it (extra applause for “good” bad puns, like a cubist rendering entitled “Picowso”).

The cows, now “painted, pomaded and all dressed up” (as Chicago proclaimed), are strategically placed all over town—street corners, city parks, entrances to public and commercial buildings—for a set period of time. Sometimes the critters are highly visible; sometimes they’re a visual surprise. Then after the period of public display comes the grand finale, the culmination of the fundraising effort: All of the one-of-a-kind, signed art cows go on the auction block, often a gala event. Corporate entities, private collectors, and generous individuals bid for the cows they may have sponsored or just happen to like best. And they pay handsomely. This past autumn, for example, the auction for CowParade New York 2000 (an event staged by competitor US-CowParade© Holdings) raised a stunning $1,351,000 for seven local charities, with the decadent “Tiffany Cow” going for $60,000 all by herself.

Imaginative, colorful, witty and whimsical—the public is mad about the cow. And that’s exactly the point. These events bring together the community at large, appealing to all ages and all walks of life. Putting on a parade is a total community effort, says Alex Nieroth of US developer CowParade Holdings Corporation. “It involves area artists and charities, corporate and individual sponsors, host cities, and the residents and tourists who enjoy the parade.” But make no mistake: time and again the cows as art are winners with art connoisseurs, as well.

The cows come home

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Debuting in Zurich, Switzerland, during the summer of 1998, the first ever Cows on Parade was developed by the city’s retail association both to showcase the local arts community and to bring business to the downtown retailers—and at the same time raise community spirit. “In short, CowParade stands for art, charity and fun,” says Nieroth. As a result of the event, Zurich’s tourist industry began skyrocketing: the event was credited with bringing in more than 1.5 million additional tourists to the city during its stay. One of them was American businessman Peter Hanig.

Hanig, a Chicago footwear retailer and President of the Greater North Michigan Ave. Retail Association, had the brainstorm of marching a CowParade home to the Windy City. In 1999, with the support and guidance of CowParade Holdings AG Switzerland (the original concept creators, developers and organizers), Chicago’s parade was in the works. By June, 320 cows were dressed for the occasion, bringing 2,000,000 more visitors to come see—and buy—Chicago. The event brought an additional $200 million into the city. Not only was the event celebrated as the most successful art exhibition in the state’s history, the Chicago mayor’s office proclaimed it “the largest and most successful event [of any kind] in the history of Chicago.”

Why cows?

image“Who can resist a cow?” asks Nieroth. “They’re cute, sweet, and universally beloved animals. And they’re a great surprise in major urban centers,” he says. Plus, from the artist’s perspective, cows present a unique, three-dimensional surface, Nieroth says. All very fitting for Chicago, what with Mrs. O’Leary and all.

After the success of the Zurich and Chicago events, CowParade Holdings AG, Switzerland, started bringing the concept as a turnkey to other American cities, and around the world. And last year, rival company US Cow Parade staged “copycow” parades in Stamford, CT; West Orange, NJ; and “Moo York” City. To date, more than 50 cities have expressed interest in the possibility of their local artists creating distinct cows for the hometown’s cityscape. Not since the Old West have American cities seen so many cows meandering down Main Street.

Thanks to the celebrity cows, these cities are finding that painting and putting them on public display results in raised local pride and local revenue. And the maverick or “copycat” cities, as they’re known, have been inspired to organize similar public art exhibits of their own, with city-related themes. Boston hosted the “Cavalcade of Cod.” Orlando, in keeping with its subtropical locale, recently let 300 six-foot lizards loose for the city’s LizArt event. And Miami will launch “Flamingos in Paradise” later this year. Lexington, KY, famed for its thoroughbred horse farms, hosted Horse Mania. And across the Ohio River, Cincinnati held the Big Pig Gig. Why pigs? According to event publicity, they’re “the light-hearted symbol of the city’s history” as “Porkopolis”—America’s largest meat-packing center years ago. And “they play on our sense of humor,” says Joe Kramer, the city’s Chamber of Commerce VP for Economic Development.

For any of these cities, it’s about something more than the choice of barnyard animal: it’s about community. “All the cooperation of area businesses, non-profit organizations and supporting city agencies is serious business, and should be celebrated as such,” Kramer says. And, of course, it’s about revenue.

Got cows?

imageOnce the city’s event is over and the cows leave their urban grazing grounds, only memories—and merchandise—remain. While controversy and legal action hang over the issue of who holds the concept’s rights—original organizers CowParade Holdings AG, Switzerland (and their US counterpart) or American rival US CowParade Holdings—there’s no question that the public wants cows. And so an ideal opportunity for specialty retailers has arisen in the numerous licensed products that followed: the T-shirts, jackets, hats, totes, plush toys, postcards, prints, books, magnets, and even a home-version, paint-your-own-cow kit.

For tourists and local residents who saw one of the exhibits, the merchandise extends the memory and the fun of the experience. “When I visited Chicago and saw the Parade, I fell in love with the Angel Cow,” says Boston resident Grayson Moore. “I couldn’t leave the exhibit without taking home a photo of my cow and her friends [depicted] in the coffee-table books being sold.” For people who haven’t seen the “real” thing, the concept and the graphics are fun enough in their own right to spur sales of licensed products. And on a different level, a benefit for everyone, including the artists themselves, comes from official Parade calendars and books: the artists get exposure through their insights on their cow designs and how they executed them. Copycat cities are also seeing profits in their event-related merchandise, both as tourist souvenirs and as keepsakes for the locals.

And the beef goes on. Cow-mania has spawned a merchandise bonanza for specialty retailers, and the trend hasn’t yet peaked. As the cows and their relatives move cross-country, and as more artistic hands are invited to make their mark, it’s a safe bet that the bovine boom will continue at least through the year.

“Everywhere the CowParade goes, herds of people follow,” proclaims US CowParade Holdings. And so does the money. So whether it’s Chicago’s cows or a hometown critter crawl, specialty retailers benefit from the event-related T-shirts and totes, magnets and more. They’re not just colorful and clever and fun—they’re profitable. “Take a look,” says Nieroth, “and just try not to smile.”


Lauryn Mittleman

Mittleman is a regular contributor to Specialty Retail Report

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