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Interview with a squirrel

Posted by Claire Matthews
For generations, visitors to Banff National Park have been running after the area's cute little ground squirrels trying to get a photo that isn't blurry and out of focus. But in August, 2009, one squirrel turned the tables by jumping front and centre into a shot – and went from being an anonymous terrestrial rodent to becoming one of the most popular personalities on the Internet.

The photo that started the Banff Squirrel phenomenon was a fluke – but the continued popularity of the squirrel and its influence on the Banff National Park marketing plan has not been left to chance. It is the perfect example of how, by being alert and well-prepared, branders were able to act quickly and use social media to transform what could have been just a fun flash-in-the-pan into a lasting marketing meme.
banff squirrel

The Banff Crasher Squirrel was soon popping up in wedding photos, sports images, and alongside celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton and the Beatles. Soon there was a Banff Squirrel Facebook page and the @banff_squirrel Twitter account. In the end, the squirrel's image was reproduced an estimated 86 million times – not bad for an animal that weighs less than a kilogram and whose day-to-day activities would normally be limited to searching for food, fleeing from predators and sniffing other squirrels.

The squirrel – it is difficult to assign a gender to it, as it has never been photographed below the waist – is far from going back underground. I caught up with it as it was kicking back with a few nuts in a private tree hole in Banff.

Placebrand: So, what was going through your head when you jumped in front of that camera?

Banff Squirrel: Curiosity, really. You see people sitting in front of those things all the time in the Park. I finally decided to see what the heck would happen if I stood in front of one.

PB: Well, you found out all right. How does going viral change your life?

BS: I get recognized a lot more for sure. It's harder to go out for dinner, because people keep asking me for autographs. On the other hand, I get a lot more handouts – peanuts, popcorn, you name it.

PB: Those aren't natural to a ground squirrel's diet are they? Some of your fans are concerned about how eating all this human food could affect your health.

BS: Don't worry, I keep the eating under control – the camera adds 10 pounds you know! All I can say is, thank goodness for PhotoShop. It helps keep me svelte.

PB: So here's the thing everyone wants to know: how does a small, rural rodent from a National Park master social media the way you have?

BS: Well, we animals aren't oblivious to the changes in media and communication, you know. There's a lot more wildlife online than you'd think: Smoky the Bear has a Twitter account. So does a tree in England. And of course the domesticated species are all over it.

PB: How do you decide what to Tweet about?

BS: From the beginning I decided I would just go with the flow. And it turns out that it's not really about me at all – it's about the Park. When I hit the 'Net, it became clear that folks loved me not just because I'm so irresistibly cute (and let's face it, I am!), but because there are people all over the world who love Banff National Park. Media personalities, celebrities, movie stars – they've been here, they love it, they want to talk about it. I'm just kind of a focal point.

PB: Any memorable celebrity exchanges you'd like to tell us about?

BS: Well, I had a Tweet from Margaret Atwood the other day – it was pretty cool to interact with a Canadian icon.

PB: So you mostly talk about the Park?

BS: I follow the rules of good social media, which are also the rules of good conversation: I spend one third of my time talking about myself and the Park, one third talking about related interests, like hiking and photography, and one third on other stuff. Like for example I did a bunch fun stuff with Bay of Fundy tourism's "Seven Wonders" campaign. If you look at my Twitter account, you'll see that it's mostly about people sharing things – photos, stories, other beautiful places and objects. We're a community brought together by shared interests.

PB: You're regularly in the top ten on the list of 50 Most Influential Travel Related Companies Online. Do you consider yourself a spokes-squirrel for Banff National Park?

BS: Well, I was on a poster once. But I don't sell hotel rooms or travel packages. I just talk about the home I love. I'm a fan of the Park, like so many others. Now, when people see me, they think of Banff National Park. I do try to provide some useful information – like, I tell people not to feed the animals in the Park. You don't see me trying to shove seeds down your kids' throats do you?

PB: Good point. So what's next for you? Hibernation?

BS: No way, there's too much fun stuff going on! Who knows where the flow of social media will take me next? It's all a big adventure.

PB: Well, thanks for your time. Um, by the way, I've been writing this up and I've realized that your initials are "BS." Is that a problem?

BS: Nah! It kind of works for me, don't you think?

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