Posted on Jul 06, 2010

The word "Chalkbot" may not exactly trip off the tongue. But to the creatives at Wieden+Kennedy, it perfectly summed up the robot they created to spray messages of hope and encouragement in yellow chalk along the route of the Tour de France last year. Part of Nike's Open Road project, the "Chalkbot" campaign helped personalize Lance Armstrong's Livestrong foundation and its global campaign against cancer.

While people had been buying Livestrong yellow bands for years, the challenge was how to make the statement more visible and vocal. According to creative director Tyler Whisnand, who worked with co-creative director Danielle Flagg, "It was not necessarily about Armstrong winning an 8th Tour de France, but more about Livestrong and spreading awareness for cancer."

Starting with the tagline, "It's about you," the campaign aimed at engaging and encouraging artists to use the road as a canvas. It was art directors Adam Heathcott and James Moslander who came up with the idea of the Chalkbot to spray the messages on the road, and they turned to the former's techie pals to create it. "My friends were in a band and sang about technology," Heathcott explains. "They were Carnegie Mellon students into robotics and were involved on a project called graffiti writer, an automated graffiti machine involving five spray cans on the back of a remote-controlled truck that ended up being the precursor to Chalkbot."

These friends subsequently started two companies, DeepLocal and StandardRobot, and built a hydraulic system on a truck that became Chalkbot. As for the name, "Our producer started saying Chalkbot originally as a joke," says Heathcott. "Then people started identifying with it and it just sort of stuck."

The campaign dragged the time-honored tradition of chalking messages on the Tour de France route into the 21th century by using the campaign's website, text messages, online banners and Twitter to channel suggestions and greetings from fans. "It's about you,' is such a cool action statement," says writer Marco Kaye. "Part of what made the idea of the Chalkbot so unique was that it was physical and something that connected and activated online and also went on to the road."

The campaign got a lot of coverage through Versus, the official website of the Tour de France, which was then picked up by cable channels ESPN, CNN and other news networks and sports sites. "It got picked up by the tech community pretty quickly because it was a new thing no one had heard about," says Moslander. "The job of the banners was to educate people. One web page was dedicated to the Chalkbot with a behind-the-scenes video explaining what it did."

Says Heathcott: "We kept getting crazy looks because when we rolled up it was like 50 lawn mowers running amok. We all had different tasks. One StandardRobot guy did the driving. As we got further into town people were cheering and knew what the thing was."

The most difficult aspect was just keeping awake on long, 20-hour days. But it was worth it. Over the course of the month, the Chalkbot gained over 4,000 followers on Twitter, received over 36,000 messages of support and inspiration. Over the 13 stages and thousands of miles of the Tour de France more than 5,400 messages were chalked, tagged with GPS coordinates and photographed. Those photos and GPS data were sent to the writers of the messages.

Nike "Chalkbot" was named the 2010 One Show Interactive Best of Show for its innovative use of social networking and cutting-edge technology. As for what's next, Nike is continuing the campaign at this year's Tour de France, in which Armstrong is cycling for the 9th time. "Nike saw a lot of potential in it and we want to keep this message going," says Whisnand. "It's for everyone who's touched by this disease." Kaye says that they are working on updating, improving, and taking the Chalkbot to the next level, reaching out to even more people. Adds Moslander: "It's just great that the world embraces it in this way."


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