Wall, South Dakota: home to around 800 people, Badlands National Park, and perhaps the original billboard kingpin, Wall Drug. These days, Wall Drug is certainly no ordinary drug store. Its original claim to fame, though, was billboards advertising free ice water for parched travelers headed west through a particularly deserted section of the state. That simple offer drew enough tourists for Wall Drug to blossom into one of the world’s best known roadside attractions, and it still attracts around 2 million visitors a year. For what started as a small town drug store during the Great Depression, that’s no small miracle.
Wall Drug hit upon something early and hasn’t stopped. And why would it, when it hauls in approximately $10 million in annual revenue? It’s a wonder that more savvy marketers never seemed to take note. Radio and television advertising, websites and social media seem like more sophisticated ways to get attention. But while technology has allowed us to reach consumers in more and more ways, it’s basically a never-ending space race. The more technology opens up opportunities, the more consumers find ways to opt out of being marketed to.
Consumers are currently being bombarded with video content, and tired of their smart technology piping up at awkward moments. Trying to browse some new small space garden trends to wind down at the end of a hard day? Just don’t click on the wrong thing, or some dreadful video will pop up hawking a product that may or may not have anything to do with small space gardening.
But billboards, on the other hand, are silent. And while they might be considered an eyesore, throughout much of the Great Plains (don’t shoot the messenger) there’s not that much else to look at. While billboards might not light up faces in your hip and talented marketing department, consumers can’t opt out, which makes them a rather obvious choice that’s still being chronically overlooked.
But they aren’t being overlooked by everyone. Kris Lindahl, CEO of Kris Lindahl Real Estate, grew his brokerage from a small team in 2018 to a team of hundreds of agents in multiple states, and surpassed $1 billion in sales, all in just two years. The secret to his success is no secret to anyone in the Twin Cities area, who have been the targets of an aggressive billboard marketing campaign that has paid off handsomely.
And it’s no ordinary billboard. Lindahl’s original billboard featured him grinning, arms stretched wide as if to give everyone a hug. Some people loved it, some people made fun of it, but around the Twin Cities and beyond, he became a household name in an incredibly short period of time. Because his image became such a fixture of Minnesotans’ day-to-day lives, people began appropriating his image for Halloween costumes, and even for their own spoof billboards. It’s attracted all sorts of national media attention, and one more recent billboard, where Kris Lindahl trolled the Philadelphia Eagles, went viral within a single day.
“I do the billboards because they work. When they stop working, I’ll stop doing them,” Lindahl has repeatedly offered when asked. In fact, recently he felt the need to change up the imagery because they had become such an ingrained part of the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota landscape. Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa are the next states to receive his characteristic monoliths. And both Dakotas are on the docket.
It’ll be interesting to take that trip on !-90, and see just where the eventual Kris Lindahl billboards pop up in the eastern, more populated area of the state, and where they will eventually meet the onslaught of Wall Drug signs.
My hope is there will be one single billboard of a hand-painted Kris Lindahl shaking hands with a cartoon version of Wall Drug’s 80′ tall dinosaur. Because as Wall Drug fans have made their own versions of the billboard and taken them all over the world, including the Great Wall, Morocco and Antarctica. The same day the Mars rover started sending back pictures, one creative fan inserted a Kris Lindahl billboard into the scene. The meme was shared almost immediately, and Lindahl turned it into a contest, with a cash prize for the best Mars billboard meme people could think of. Yes, it’s kitsch. But laugh all you want. The more you do, the better the campaign works.