The lowdown on grassroots

Promos, contests, guerrilla tactics all are being increasingly employed to reach youth.

Promos, contests, guerrilla tactics all are being increasingly employed to reach youth.

Probably the biggest trend I saw this year was the attempt to leverage star power – i.e. become a star, hang out with your favourite star – and the kids gobbled it up. There was a rash of promos taking advantage of Pop Stars, Becoming, Making of the Band and American Idol, which is cool, but to me the underlying social-psyche driving consumers was more important if you were thinking long-term. Were these promos effective? You’d have to work really hard to make a mess of providing kids with great hook-ups. Where these promos did suffer though was in relationship to each other; as expected, the bigger the star, the more competitors got creamed.

My personal vote for the most effective grassroots marketing trend is e-propagation. Not spam, it is still a viral strategy, where the recipient gets an electronic invite or promotional piece. They immediately pass it on to their friends because they notice the obvious lack of controls (e.g. a limit on how many can be printed), and take the opportunity to empower themselves and/or get everyone else involved by spreading the love. I love how it leverages human nature, as well as works the market from the inside out.

What hasn’t been effective? Simply put, anything that was too much work. There are just too many contests and promos out there that were as easy as calling in and winning, and the level of giveaway wasn’t exactly shabby. You want your strategic executions to be challenging, but not hard.

Contests are challenging when they’re not so easy that everyone is a winner or you’re rewarded for your effort (makes sense for a video game generation). But contests are defined as ‘too hard’ when your chances of winning are too slim, when access is too difficult or simply when the list of conditions and caveats is too long – it’s the ‘why bother?’ litmus test.

Where will grassroots marketing go in the future? There are two paths: The first is technology-based strategies. Wireless and digital are where you’ll see the biggest breakthroughs. Digital is easy because value-added programming already exists, and users are easily segmented and targeted. Wireless will be a tougher nut to crack until push-based strategies get end-user permission and some decent content is developed. As soon as those issues get sorted, it’s going to be crazy.

The other future is partnerships. The best grassroots marketing comes from grassroots companies, full stop. If grassroots marketers could ever get their small-time acts together and establish the capability to operate on a significant scale with the necessary sophistication, strong outsourcing models could take off. They would go far beyond Listerine bottles walking around downtown handing out breath strips.

There will never be a backlash against grassroots, especially in its current form where it’s pretty innocuous. Right now the mainstream corporations use grassroots channels to break through the clutter, but there’s nothing edgy in what they’re saying or doing. ‘Grassroots marketing’ is a misnomer for stuffing mainstream concepts through alternate channels (e.g. the Net) or the use of underground icons and archetypes in mainstream messages. Neither will cause a consumer uprising. Rapper Jay-Z said it best, ‘bring pop culture closer to the block.’ When it comes to youth culture, that should be every company’s goal and every agency’s mantra.

My favourite grassroots campaign

The And 1 video and DVD – Ball Access: The Mixtape Tour (streetball video). Available through select sporting goods retailers. It’s tight branding, tight product, and it keeps the product bubbling with consumers.

Gregory Skinner is an independent consumer strategist based in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 894-6462.