Struggling to get their message across, companies reach out to young consumers in new ways, such as at cheerleading events.
At a national cheerleading competition last month, girls wearing short skirts and purple eye glitter competed for points at the Anaheim Convention Center in Orange County. But the real contest was going on in the beauty lounge.
The prize: the loyal buying habits of brand-obsessed teens.
At a vanity table in a corner of the convention center, Jessica Lopez, a 14-year-old from West Covina in the San Gabriel Valley, learned how to make her tresses stand up on end with Herbal Essences hair spray.
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A stylist sprayed her hair, teased it with a comb and spritzed it again. Jessica walked away with a can of the spray — and an armful of CoverGirl mascara, Secret deodorant, Skintimate shaving cream and Bic Soleil razors.
“My whole bathroom is full of stuff they give us,” said the freshman on the Rock Star Athletics cheerleading team.
That’s the idea. Struggling to get their message to teens, companies are finding new ways to reach them.
“Forces are making it very difficult for advertisers to connect with young people,” said Samantha Skey, executive vice president of strategic marketing at Alloy Media & Marketing, a youth marketing agency. “So advertisers are going into schools, forging new platforms for youth connection.”
To promote its in-house Epic Thread line of clothes, department-store giant Macy’s sent templates of T-shirts to elementary schools encouraging students to create shirt designs and enter them in a contest. Macy’s selected a winner from 12,000 entries and will sell the T-shirt in 25 stores nationwide in May.
Old Spice sent to 5,000 high-school football teams 100 samples of Red Zone brand body wash and deodorant as well as Old Spice body spray as part of its National Red Zone Player of the Year program, in which Old Spice encourages football coaches to nominate players.
Those selected “player of the year” will appear in a full-page Old Spice ad in USA Today. “It’s a perfect fit,” said Jay Gooch, external-relations manager for Old Spice. “It’s a time in their lives when they’re making choices about what they want to use.”
Companies are smart to target cheerleaders, said Marlene Cota, vice president of corporate alliances at Varsity Brands, the Memphis, Tenn., company that ran the competition in Anaheim, because they are often the girls others look up to.
At recent cheerleading camps across the country, Propel, a unit of Gatorade Co., sponsored “hydration breaks,” handing out its fitness water after participants exercised; CoverGirl conducted a makeover tour, showing how to apply lip gloss and other cosmetic products; and Skintimate, a unit of S.C. Johnson & Son, sponsored an in-camp cheerleading competition to anoint a “Smooth Moves” champion.
“The girls literally screamed at each camp when they learned they would get free CoverGirl makeovers and samples,” company spokeswoman Anitra Marsh said.
Some things they might not push
Is there anything that marketers won’t try to push on teens? Cota said she turned down offers from tobacco, medicinal and meat-products companies that Varsity deemed inappropriate. (The cigarette promotion would have featured an anti-smoking campaign that Cota eventually discovered was sponsored by a tobacco company.)
But that still leaves marketers with plenty to sell to teenagers.
“If you can hook teens when they’re young, you have a customer for a lifetime,” said Matt Britton, chief of brand development at Mr. Youth, a marketing enterprise.
About two-thirds of teens are loyal to brands they like, according to Harris Interactive, a market-research company. Forrester Research has found that more than 60 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 will remain with their bank after they graduate from high school and recommend it to friends.
Nearly half of teens talk about personal-care and beauty products, compared with just 29 percent of the general public, according to a study by research company Keller Fay Group.
Consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble’s strategy to get free samples into the hands of cheerleader Jessica appears to have had its intended effect. “I used Dove [deodorant] once, but ever since I got the little Secret ones, I use those,” she said.
Strategy can backfire
Giving away products can backfire when people have a bad experience with them. Brooke Morgan, 13, said she received a sample of Suave deodorant but wasn’t happy with it.
And bad word gets out: Keller Fay found that teens are slightly more likely than the general public to disparage a product if they don’t like it.
Consumer advocates aren’t wild about enlisting teens as product promoters. Robert Weissman, managing director for Commercial Alert, an advocacy group, said that giving beauty products to young girls introduces them to corporate standards of beauty too early.
Teens shouldn’t be conscripted to be unknowing shills for a brand, he said. “They intend for the kids to carry their message forward, and they’re not telling them that.”
Kids who love to talk about new things often can’t help sounding like spokespeople.
“This mascara doesn’t clump like all the others,” Stephanie Wolf, 16, said of the CoverGirl samples she received at the cheerleading competition in Anaheim.
The reactions of teens like Stephanie explain why executives of CoverGirl parent Procter & Gamble think that, “If we can get a sample in someone’s hands, we know a significant percentage of them will go back and repeat,” said Gooch, the Old Spice manager, who also represents Secret.
He said P&G gives away 300,000 to 350,000 Secret deodorant sticks annually at cheerleading events.
Once a brand reaches a cheerleader, it’s probable that its name will spread faster than a nasty rumor.
Teens, especially girls, continually are connected these days through cellphones, instant messages and e-mail. And cheerleaders are often the leaders of the pack — what Varsity’s Cota calls “the top of the food chain.”
“If you can connect with people more likely to be influencers, it’s probably a good way to get out your message,” said Kelly O’Keefe, director of executive education at Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, which teaches advertising. “Cheerleaders are likely very social, highly influential and communicative.”
Sunshine Smith, a 14-year-old from Portland, embodies that. She was huddled with other girls from her team in Anaheim, talking about beauty products.
Her sister Alison, 8, also a cheerleader, hung on every word. Sunshine said she and her friends would use the free products to give makeovers to one another, then show their friends.
Her coach, Twila Smith, said news of the products would travel fast.
“They’re the perfect kids at school,” she said. “Lots of kids look up to them.”