Verizon Wireless laced up to reach a new audience
In early 2009, Verizon Wireless knew it was headed for a showdown with AT&T. Months away was Verizon's pact with Google, the launch of the Droid smartphone and the company's effort to elbow AT&T out of the iPhone contract. It was dawning on the phone giant, known as "Big Red," that to be iPhone-worthy, it had better get acquainted with the insular, urban-teen and young-adult demo that sets the youth agenda. Contrary to what the ubiquitous, guy-in-glasses, "Can you hear me now" ads had drilled into everyone, Verizon Wireless had to convince the cool kids that it was no longer their dads' phone company. It had less than a year to try to make itself an urban-insider brand, rather than a suburban afterthought.
Enter the sneakerheads.
The clique of edgy sports and music figures who collect designer and vintage sneakers has morphed into a mainstream global phenomenon. Limited-edition sneakers are now the entry point into a street culture that incorporates hip-hop music, skateboarding, basketball, street art and video games. At the forefront of the sneakerhead following is the Sneaker Pimps traveling show, which presents big names in music, sport and art in a tightly organized, yet seemingly spontaneous street event. Started back in 2003, the tour has put on 200 shows in more than 60 cities and traversed the world six times.
What's driving sneaker culture now goes far beyond footwear, says Australian Peter Fahey, 27, founder of the tour. When local teens experience live street art, hip-hop, skateboarding, basketball and displays of rare shoes "in one massive hit, it just gets them totally stoked," the crowds get bigger and "it becomes more attractive to big sponsors," he says.
By early 2009, Fahey's U.S. tour had outgrown the budget of sponsor Boost Mobile and was casting about for a replacement. Fahey reached out to his contacts at Momentum, the experiential marketing arm of McCann Worldgroup, which handles the Verizon Wireless account. A match was made, and in June the national leg of the tour was launched as "Verizon Wireless Presents Sneaker Pimps USA Tour 2009."
The Verizon logo became part of the tour's street posters, retail ticket giveaways and online promos. The phone brand was incorporated into local radio spots, email blasts and the tour's Web site and digital newsletter. As the summer tour unfolded, influential sneakerhead bloggers kept the branded buzz flowing - fawning over Pimps rappers such as Big Boi, Jadakiss and B-Real and hyping live sneaker customizing at Pimps events by artists SBTG and Meth. Your dad's phone company indeed.
From June to September, the tour hit 16 cities attracting an average 2,000 to 3,000 people per city who each paid $10-30 admission. At least two-thirds were guys aged 18 to 25, Verizon Wireless's target. In New York City alone, 4,000 sneaker freaks showed up at Terminal 5; in 2010 a bigger version of the show is slated for Javits Center.
Fit to Be Tied
The real trick was how to insert Verizon Wireless into the tour's stew of entertainment at each show without looking lame or overly commercial. The answer: focus on texting, not marketing. A branded screen, nearly 10 feet tall, was mounted on the main stage, and sometimes in other sites around each venue. Throughout the entire show, people in the audience could send texts or pictures to a phone number posted next to the screens and their messages would appear on the screen within moments. There was only enough editing to keep the swear words out.
The unpredictable user-generated messages made for an effusive and often funny backdrop to the proceedings on the stage - and were quickly a hit. For instance, "Give the Dude a high 5" said a typical congratulatory text in the Chicago show. It was followed by a more practical plea, "I gotta work in the morning." The mashup of performance and commentary turned out to be more entertaining and popular than both the sponsor and promoter expected "with sometimes 6,000 or more texts at a single show," notes Fahey.
Experts are less surprised. "Think about it. Live on-stage texting lets fans shape the live experience - which is mission critical," says Judy Franks, principal of the Marketing Democracy. Both the product and brand behavior "seamlessly fit the audience's needs and the 'story' of the live event," she notes.
At each exhibition hall, Verizon Wireless also set up a branded station with five phones and a screen. The screen would display a sample sentence, such as, "I got 99 problems, but my kicks aint 1." Sneakerheads were invited to compete with each other to see who could text the message the fastest, with the winner at the end of the night getting a pair of high-priced collector sneakers.
To blend into the arty mood of the scene, the wireless company also set up a display of shoeboxes covered with artwork by the designers and graffiti artists featured at the show.
Momentum handled follow-up contacts with audience members who participated with the Verizon activities, sending bits of show-related entertainment and marketing to their mobile phones.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Verizon Wireless itself declines to talk about the new "pimp" side of its brand personality. One reason may be the sponsorship's impact on the family-friendly stance of parent Verizon, say industry observers. (The term "Sneaker Pimps," incidentally, has nothing to do with hookers. It was the name of a British trip-hop band in the '90s who borrowed their name from the term the Beastie Boys used to describe someone they hired to find classic "kicks" for them to wear during shows.)
In any case, the sneaker show connection satisfied Verizon Wireless's marketing needs. The brand received 100 percent awareness at each show and more than 60 percent direct interaction with participants, according to tour organizers. The audience involvement was more than twice the company's goal, say insiders. Another telling sign: During the first part of the tour, Verizon Wireless shared sponsorship with Xbox 360. Positive results prompted Verizon to ask to add five extra markets to the tour and it paid to be the sole sponsor for those shows. The company is also reportedly talking to Fahey about possible involvement in the Sneaker Pimps' 11-city college tour in February and April 2010. (Can you spell D-R-O-I-D?)
Online, results from the sponsorship were mixed. On MySpace, the Verizon Wireless Sneaker Pimp page attracted a healthy 60,000 friends and 14,000 comments. In contrast, only a smattering of YouTube videos promoted the tour, with most collecting just 100 to 1,000 views.
Sneaker Pimps has graduated from a culty event to "a large entertainment brand," says youth and social marketing expert Josh Levine. For Verizon Wireless, sponsoring that brand was a gutsy way to overcome "the immediate disconnect kids get when you see cool shoes and the Verizon name," he says. But Levine, who has worked with Puma, Hyundai and Mazda, thinks the sponsorship should have gone further. "What if Verizon debuted a sneaker pimp phone exclusively at the show?" he asks. Also, the brand should have better tapped the relationship between the promoter and the audience. "What Fahey says carries more weight than anything Verizon could say. They could rent his good will," says Levine.
To that end, Fahey is expanding his sneaker culture influence into a new consultancy, The Soundboard Group, with partner Butch Bannon. Too many brands trying to tap sneaker culture "don't understand the different subcultures in the larger scene" and make blunders that sap their credibility, Fahey complains. For example, "a marketer partners with the wrong brand of sneaker, or instead of a hip-hop artist, it signs up a r&b artist." Fahey says Verizon was smart about not claiming to be experts about winning over the iPhone-loving sneakerheads. "They asked us how to get involved in the tour so they didn't come across like this big phone company trying to
sell stuff in pop-up tents." But it's just a start, everyone agrees. The influence of urban youth culture could mean sales for the Droid and maybe the carrier contract for the iPhone. But only if the phone giant can turn up the volume.