Youth marketers go undercover to tempt teens

Let's face it: The cool kids have way more influence on their popularity-seeking peers than even the most flashy, over-the-top mass media campaign. And a commercial wouldn't likely impel them to buy until the 'in' crowd first deemed the product worthy.
Hence, interest in so-called 'word-of-mouth' or 'undercover' initiatives continues to rise among youth marketers, who are always eager to pursue innovative methods to approach teens, and with good reason. In fact, U.S. consulting firm McKinsey & Co., reported last May that 67% of consumer goods sales are now directly influenced by word-of-mouth.
Specifically, there has been recent heightened activity in product seeding - whereby marketers outfit influencers in hopes of creating buzz about an item - and even 'roach-bait marketing,' also known as 'roaching' - where actors are paid to engage consumers in conversations about a brand, in various locales, such as restaurants, bars, shopping centres or on the street.

Let’s face it: The cool kids have way more influence on their popularity-seeking peers than even the most flashy, over-the-top mass media campaign. And a commercial wouldn’t likely impel them to buy until the ‘in’ crowd first deemed the product worthy.

Hence, interest in so-called ‘word-of-mouth’ or ‘undercover’ initiatives continues to rise among youth marketers, who are always eager to pursue innovative methods to approach teens, and with good reason. In fact, U.S. consulting firm McKinsey & Co., reported last May that 67% of consumer goods sales are now directly influenced by word-of-mouth.

Specifically, there has been recent heightened activity in product seeding – whereby marketers outfit influencers in hopes of creating buzz about an item – and even ‘roach-bait marketing,’ also known as ‘roaching’ – where actors are paid to engage consumers in conversations about a brand, in various locales, such as restaurants, bars, shopping centres or on the street.

Adam Starr, president of Montreal-based youth marketing company Gearwerx Content Networks, says that more brands are asking about roach marketing these days. In the last three months, he’s received about 10 inquiries from interested parties compared to none previously.

Media saturation is the cause of the current infatuation with word-of-mouth marketing, particularly among corporations trying to appeal to media-savvy youth. ‘Even a number of years ago, if you ran a 30-second spot on the X-Files, you would reach a certain percentage of teens, but now with the Internet and TV saturation, you can’t get that mass reach right away,’ explains Jeff Spriet, founder of Toronto-based guerrilla branding company Wiretap.

One new firm that has recently tapped into the undercover marketing movement is Matchstick, which opened its doors last February.

Matchstick founders Matthew Stradiotto and Patrick Thoburn practise product seeding, which entails finding the ‘influencers’ of a specific demographic, showering freebies on them, and then sending them out to spread the word about a brand.

They already have plans to move into larger offices next month and have already seen promising results. In fact, Reebok Canada was so pleased with the outcome of its seeding program for its Urban Training line of athletic footwear last summer that it plans to hook up with Matchstick for two new product launch campaigns in 2002.

After outfitting 19- to 21-year-old women last June, sales dropped only when Reebok stopped seeding, says marketing manager Micki Rivers. ‘As long as we pushed that shoe, we had tremendous results.’

Since opening for business, interest among marketers has been ‘phenomenal,’ according to Thoburn, who points out the client roster includes other big-name corporations like Unilever Cosmetics and Adidas-Salomon.

The ‘seeders’ at Matchstick aren’t paid actors; rather they are individuals chosen through a vigorous screening process that includes a market research questionnaire asking about lifestyle, as well as their response to the product in question. ‘It’s very important they are turned on by the product,’ says Stradiotto, who also maintains that seeding doesn’t fabricate buzz, but simply accelerates it, especially since no money changes hands. ‘There’s nothing forced about it. We’ve never asked the seeders to behave in a way that’s unnatural.’

Unilever Cosmetics used the practice of seeding in mid-October to launch a new fragrance called BCBGirls. Matchstick sought out 200 19- to 25-year-old women in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and gave them samples to hand out to peers. ‘The concept of the fragrance [which comes in four scents] is about girls having fun and sharing, so we wanted to make it cool upfront,’ explains Mavis Fraser, director of marketing at the company.

Still, other youth marketers are stretching the concept of undercover marketing into controversial territory: namely, roaching. Gearwerx’s Starr has recently ventured down this road, and says many companies are eager to tag along. ‘We’re seeing interest across the board [in terms of products],’ he says.

Like Matchstick, Gearwerx also offers seeding, but its roaching program is ‘much more elaborate and strategic.’ In fact, a lot of scrutiny goes into the recruiting process, according to Starr, because ‘roachers have to be right on the money.’ In Gearwerx’s case, they mainly consist of energetic actors with improv talents who are given scripts outlining about a dozen different scenarios per venue. ‘Roaching offers a one-on-one engagement that goes on 40 times a night,’ explains Starr. ‘It’s not the same as a TV ad that hits millions, but it will hit 40 people in a quality-oriented way.’

Jonathan Ressler, president of New York-based youth marketing agency Big Fat, says there is no limit to the type of item that could benefit from roaching. ‘We wouldn’t do it for religion and politics, but other than that, there’s no category outside the possibilities.’ Ressler, who counts Nintendo, Pepsi and The History Channel among his clients (although they don’t necessarily all participate in roach-bait marketing), says there are more than 20 brands active in this area, and that the practice has meant ‘multiple millions of dollars’ at his shop.

But it is a strategy he reserves specifically for product launches. ‘The roach-bait phase is when people don’t know who you are. You can’t come out and sponsor big events, because it’s like when a guy you just met walks up and says, ‘I’d love to come over for dinner.’ That’s a big mistake a lot of brands make.’

Keeping it believable all lies in the approach, he adds. Contrary to popular belief, for instance, Ressler wouldn’t have two beautiful people engage in a cheesy conversation about a new liquor brand while sitting at a bar, in hopes that others would overhear. Instead he employs ‘leaners,’ who go into super-crowded hot spots, and ask consumers, with better access to the bar, to buy them brand X. ‘If they’re remotely a human being, they will ask about the new brand, and then the leaner can talk. It’s completely natural.’

And if people somehow uncovered the plot, Ressler believes they wouldn’t give a damn. ‘There won’t be a backlash because people don’t care. If the product doesn’t fit their lifestyle, they just won’t use it. It’s just another message.’

But while product seeding is a more universally acceptable, tried-and-true program, opinions about roaching are mixed, with some youth marketing consultants worrying that it could potentially damage a brand’s reputation.

Nancy Moore, publisher of What, a Winnipeg-based youth pub, calls the strategy ‘slimy,’ and thinks kids would care. ‘I would think that teens being teens, if they found out a kid was paid to wear a pair of running shoes for this reason, they would be fairly pissed.’

And other youth marketing consultants say they would never touch roach marketing. Greg Gallo, account manager at Toronto-based event marketing company Free For All Marketing, is one of them. ‘If you’re not up-front with your consumers, you run the risk of losing everything,’ he says. ‘Because these actors are just getting paid, they are not doing anything to benefit the brand in an honest way, and it runs the risk of inauthenticity.’

In fact, the repercussion could negatively impact a brand, adds Max Valiquette, president of Toronto-based Youthography. ‘With roach marketing, there’s a greater opportunity to piss people off. Someone’s eventually going to point out that ‘the emperor has no clothes,’ and then where would we be?’ Besides, he points out, kids want marketers to give back to their community in some way. In fact, a recent Youthography study, found that 85% of Canadian youth said advertising in schools was OK if something was contributed. ‘Street level captures that – it gives to the community when brands sponsor the right shows or the right clubs. [Roaching] doesn’t give anything back. It’s parasitic.’

And consumers’ desire for a simpler, cleaner life after Sept. 11 will probably lead to resentment about this type of ‘ambush marketing,’ says Kalle Lasne, founder and editor of Vancouver-based magazine AdBusters. ‘For marketers to invade a cultural space like that is a very serious matter,’ he says. ‘Eventually there will be a big price to be paid for taking consumers for a ride they don’t want to go on.’

But while some view it as unnatural and unethical, Ressler points out that it’s a lot more credible than some mainstream ad campaigns. ‘Nobody believes that Tiger Woods hops into a Buick after his flight. People are smarter today than 10 years ago.’