The Challenge

When Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore launched the Inner Harbor Water Wheel, an innovative garbage interceptor that resides at the mouth of the Jones Falls, an early cell phone video of the device in action quickly gained traction on Reddit. Waterfront Partnership sought out What Works Studio for ideas on how to build on the momentum and further engage audiences on topics related to the mission of their Healthy Harbor initiative.

Our Solution

What Works Studio conceptualized the Mr. Trash Wheel social media persona whose core function is to engage and entertain in order to build an audience. Over time, the audience built an affinity with the social media persona and therefore became more likely to mobilize when called to action. The central premise is that if you spend most of your time giving an audience something that is strictly for their benefit, they’re more likely to reciprocate when you need them to help you push your mission forward.

The Results

Known and adored throughout the world, Mr. Trash Wheel has become an international icon for global ocean conservancy. Some of the most notable highlights include:

  • #1 on the front page of Reddit
  • Discovery Channel’s #1 story of the year
  • 1.2 million impressions on Twitter in a single day
  • Assisted in raising over $500,000 for second water wheel
  • Received unsolicited $40,000 grant from a foundation
  • Featured in hundreds of publications including the print edition of the National Geographic
  • Thousands of t-shirts sold
  • Over 12,000 engaged Twitter followers
  • Received tweets in Hindi, Chinese, Norwegian, German, and other languages
  • Visitors from around the world stop to visit Mr. Trash Wheel in the Inner Harbor
  • Inspired a local company to pay to have googly eyes installed on the actual water wheel
  • Inspired a Mr. Trash Wheel line of beer
  • Inspired a second Trash Wheel persona, Professor Trash Wheel
  • Inspired Halloween costumes, artwork, songs, an indie video game and more.

Concept Development

We were instantly struck by the organic features of the Water Wheel and how it resembled a living creature. We immediately wanted put googly eyes on it. Designed and constructed by Clearwater Mills, the distinctive shell-like covering was designed by Ziger Snead architects. We proposed to bring the Water Wheel to life, give him a clever and entertaining personality and develop content around the life and times of the person we eventually named, Mr. Trash Wheel. We imagined that if we personified the water wheel and added story elements, it would eventually develop an organic narrative of its own. For anyone wondering, his father was garbage truck and his mother was a riverboat.

Social Media

We were inspired by the surreal and often hilarious spoof Twitter account @MayorEmanuel created by Dan Sinker. We started looking for ways to blur the lines between the real and the imagined, so we found opportunities to leverage trending media stories in order to maximize our reach. It was during this time that we decided that social media activities should be broken down into roughly 80% entertainment while 20% or less should be about your own goals.

Reddit Ask Me Anything

Mr. Trash Wheel had been featured in many publications when an article in which he was featured was named the #1 Discovery Channel of the year. We had long contemplated launching an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit but we were waiting for the right time.  As we watched our traffic spike due to the story, we launched what has been cited as, “the best AMA ever,” by one user. We drove millions of impressions over two days, beat a Star Wars trailer to take the number spot on the homepage, and received an unsolicited $40,000 grant.

Professor Trash Wheel

What Works Studio developed the fundraising website for the second water wheel, assisted with collecting individual donations using the Mr. Trash Wheel Twitter account, and helped develop the persona and created the visual identity for the water wheel we would eventually know as Professor Trash Wheel. Additionally, we helped develop marketing assets and provided support for the second Trash Wheel’s Gender Reveal Party.

Mr. Trash Wheel In Space - What Works Studio
Mr. Trash Wheel in National Geographic Magazine