You may have seen the story--it was hard to miss, considering almost every major media outlet in Idaho picked it up.
"Boise craft-beer maker ordered to remove sign," wrote the Idaho Statesman.
"Creative or Highway Danger?" asked KIDO Radio.
In what was presented as a David and Goliath story, Woodland Empire Ale Craft said earlier this month that the Idaho Transportation Department had ordered the brewer to remove a sign, resembling an ITD highway sign and reading "Craft Beer-->Right Here," from its location near the Boise entrance to the I-84 Connector.
What you didn't read was that the kerfuffle was a pre-fabricated PR stunt.
"We knew before we even put the sign up there might be trouble," said Dusty Schmidt, a partner in the brewery.
According to Russ Stoddard with public relations firm Oliver Russell, "We didn't know for certain, but thought it might be the case."
And, as expected, the story garnered a lot of good press--worth its weight in gold to a new business (Woodland Empire opened its Front Street tasting room in January).
"Even if they have to [replace the sign]--then they score," Stoddard assured the brewer.
As Schmidt tells it, an ITD engineer drove by Woodland Empire and knew from the get-go the sign violated state mandates.
"He blew the whistle on us," said Schmidt.
Citing the sign as a potential safety hazard, ITD sent a complaint to Woodland that it must change the billboard, since it mimicked highway directional signs hanging nearby.
"We were wondering when we'd get the call," said Schmidt. "We had the press release ready to go; we knew it could happen."
They were so confident the call would come that, according to Schmidt, Oliver Russell cut the brewery a good deal upfront, "just in case they had to help us with publicity," he said.
"I sent [ITD] an email, saying thanks for not taking this personally," Schmidt added. "We kind of made them look like the bad guys, but we tried to keep it tongue in cheek and they totally got it."
According to Stoddard, the state never got forceful with the brewery.
"They just said, 'a rule is a rule,' and in their estimation [the sign] violates the statute," he said. "At the same time, they're telling us the sign was exceptionally clever and that [Woodland Empire] has been getting all sorts of media coverage."
Indeed, once Boise media began trumpeting the story, it began traveling well beyond Idaho, including coverage in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Houston Chronicle and RTV Channel 6 in Indianapolis.
"It's got all the elements," said Stoddard. "Great visuals, a state institution, conflict."
True, but that's only half the story.
While Woodland Empire had already anticipated needing to replace its ITD-like rooftop sign with another, the brewery never expected that it would lose the ability to put up any sign whatsoever on its rooftop. And that is exactly what happened March 20, when a city of Boise zoning enforcement officer informed the brewery that it was in violation of City Code 11-010-04.14 for putting up any sign on top of the building, no matter what it looked like. The code specifically prohibits roof signs without a special exception granted by the city. And not just roof signs, but also any "sign whose lighting, location or appearance would cause such sign to have the appearance of traffic safety signs and lights."
"We had checked with the city and they were cool with it," Schmidt insisted.
But it's not as if Woodland Empire didn't know about city permits for signage. In fact, the brewery had previously applied for two wall signs and one awning sign. But no permit/exception was ever requested by Woodland Empire for any kind of roof sign.
"And if [Woodland Empire] had applied, there's no way it would have been issued," Joe Venneman, of the city of Boise Planning and Zoning Department, told Boise Weekly. "Even a rookie planner would have said, 'Wait a minute, this is a roof sign. That's an illegal type of sign.'"
Wooddland Empire has since received the letter which it still called a "big surprise."
"This will give them 10 calendar days, from the date of the notice, to remove it," said Venneman. Meanwhile, Woodland Empire, which had thought it would could spin a nice David and Goliath story, is planning to appeal the city's decision, but is now facing the real probability of having no sign at all. But Schmidt is still unfazed.
"We knew we would try to milk the publicity if they told us to [replace] it," said Schmidt. But that may not be an option now.