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By Jennifer Lawhead

It wasn’t their first rodeo, but in terms of cancelling, it was definitely their first rodeo.

In the first weeks of March 2020, as the nation was just beginning to consider shutting down, Rodeo Austin faced a seemingly impossible decision: cancel its entire lineup filled with live music acts, a popular livestock show, a carnival and more, or try to press on, even though other major events like SXSW had just made the decision to cancel.

After only a few days, the decision was made for Rodeo Austin, based on public health recommendations and guidance from local and state officials. Although necessary, the new reality of canceling a major event in the eleventh hour was absolutely devastating for the nonprofit team who worked ‘round the clock during the last 12 months to plan it. It was heartbreaking. It was crushing.

And it was a branding moment, the leaders of Rodeo Austin later learned.

Is it possible to build a stronger brand in the face of delivering utterly disappointing news to its supporters?

Yes, but not without a little grit.

Only nine months prior, when COVID-19 was not even a part of our collective vocabulary, the Root + River team had the pleasure of branding one of Texas’s most beloved rodeos that has been steadily growing since its first show in 1938.

In the Root Session with our team, the core message of Rodeo Austin was revealed: It takes grit to grow the next generation. Along with a new set of core beliefs, standards, and core message, Rodeo Austin began using its new branding in every aspect of planning for the 2020 Rodeo. It was immediately embraced by the team, long-time supporters and the public as a part of Rodeo Austin’s new intrinsic branding practice.

“We successfully unlocked our message and our identity. I feel good about that,” Chief Executive Officer Rob Golding said. “We learned that branding is not about what you think. It’s about how it makes you feel.”

Fast forward to mid-March, in the midst of having to make the difficult decision of how to move forward, Rodeo Austin’s branding took on new meaning. The new brand beliefs and standards were used to guide how decisions were made, how communication was handled and how leadership planned to take care of its loyal patrons, even without a live event.

“It takes grit,” Rob realized. “This is one of those pull-up-your-boots and get-it-done moments.”

Two of their standards established in the Root Session – “We are a bridge to the future” and “Strong character determines everything” – informed Rodeo Austin’s decisions.

Honoring their character, they communicated with everyone who touched the Rodeo – major sponsors, entertainment acts set to perform, the 10,000 kids participating in the livestock show, individuals who had purchased tickets, VIPs, vendors and so many more. Using their solid brand as a foundation, the team was able to have those conversations in ways that were intentional, heartfelt and showcased the passion behind the 80-year-old organization.

With an intention to continue to be a bridge to the future, Rodeo Austin offered ticket refunds for anyone who desired. But they also gave an option to have ticket proceeds become a donation to its charitable services, including the youth scholarship program that has awarded millions of dollars to more than 2,000 students over the years.

Because Rodeo Austin was able to communicate who they are so effectively, and so sincerely, the public responded with the same sincerity. To date, more than a third of pre-ticket purchasers waived their refund in favor of their money staying with Rodeo Austin.

“Everything our organization is, we still are,” Rob said. “When I think about this year, it doesn’t get any grittier.”

Jennifer Lawhead has been an integral part of the Root + River team since 2016 and serves as the Root + River Chief of Story. 

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