When executives at the tiny shoemaker Kaepa started to receive phone calls and even fan mail from cheerleaders five years ago, they paid scant attention. After all, the executives figured, the cheerleader market couldn't be much to shout about.
Then the firm began to get special orders from entire teams of cheerleaders--and their coaches. Callers said they wanted the shoe mostly because its snap-on logos could be made to match their school colors.
That's all that Kaepa--a then-struggling company--had to hear. It turned its marketing plans upside down and began promoting to cheerleaders. That has since led Kaepa to target an even more lucrative market: cheerleader wannabes. The firm is now broadly pushing its shoes in Teen and Seventeen magazines. A UCLA cheerleader is even featured in a Kaepa shoes store ad. And other marketers--from Nordstrom to Teen Spirit deodorant--have joined in the cheerleader frenzy.
Marketing experts say companies that push the image of cheerleading are trying to sell impressionable teen-age girls on pure fantasy. "Almost every teen-age girl, deep down inside, wants to be a cheerleader," said Marian Salzman, president of BKG Youth, a New York-based youth market consulting firm. "It's a certificate of belonging. It's a uniform that says, you are in."
It is also a marketer's gold mine. "If 400 girls try out for the cheerleading squad, but only 10 make it, why limit yourself to reaching the 10 who make the team?" posed Patti Thomas, chief executive at CheerGear, a mail order company in Overland Park, Kan., that sells cheerleading apparel. She recently ran ads for her catalogue on cable television.
In Southern California, Kaepa--which supplies UCLA cheerleaders with shoes, bags and other goodies--occasionally brings the team into Nordstrom stores, where they hang around the shoe department performing stunts to attract the attention of teen-agers.
Before bringing a flashy new carrying case to market, New Jersey-based Cosmepak had a group of 12 cheerleaders from Oceanside High School examine it closely. "If it's hip with cheerleaders," said Ashley Rogers of BKG Youth/Los Angeles, "it will be hip with everyone."
This is the time of year when cheerleaders are in the public eye. High school, college and pro football seasons are in full swing--and basketball is just around the corner.
"When you go out on Halloween, just take a look around and see how many girls are dressed up as cheerleaders," said Dan Wilson, marketing director at United Spirit Assn., a Mt. View, Calif.-based firm that operates cheerleading camps that cost about $200 for four days.
In just a few months, ESPN will broadcast the national cheerleading championships--one of its top features. And what teen-age girl doesn't know that Paula Abdul is a former "Laker Girl"?
Perhaps that's why there are today a record 1 million male and female cheerleaders nationally--most at the high school and junior high school level, estimates the International Cheerleading Foundation, based in Shawnee Mission, Kan. These days, there are even preteen cheerleaders who whoop it up at Pop Warner football teams.
The rah-rah marketing trend is taking shape at a time when cheerleading has received lousy press.
Last month, a 37-year-old Texas woman was sentenced to 15 years in prison for hiring a hit man to go after her daughter's rival for a school cheerleading position. A 26-year-old Colorado man was sentenced last year to two years' probation for enrolling in a high school as a girl--and making the all-girl cheerleading squad.
None of this, however, seems to have done any damage. If anything, it's only helped keep cheerleading in the public eye. Marketers know that regardless of the criticism that cheerleading receives from feminist groups, it is hot--and getting hotter.
"For one thing, many black teen-agers think it's cool, so that makes it very cool for white teen-agers," said Salzman, referring to cultural trends established by urban youth. "Cheerleading is a trend on the way up."
When CheerGear ran its ad on one cable television station over a one-month period, it received more than 12,000 requests for its cheerleader apparel catalogues--about 60% from "non-cheerleaders," Thomas estimated.
Similarly, when Kaepa ran print ads for its cheerleader shoes in three magazines aimed at teen-age girls, it received 22,000 calls over a three-month period. While Nike, Reebok and Converse also make shoes aimed at cheerleaders, Kaepa is the only one broadly chasing non-cheerleaders with the five different kinds of cheerleader shoes.
In order to get teen-agers to buy its shoes, Kaepa supplies free shoes to cheerleaders from a number ofschools--including UCLA, Florida State, the University of Texas and the University of Michigan. "We want to get our shoes on the influentials," said Katie Hoffner, marketing director at San Antonio, Tex.-based Kaepa.
Indeed, the privately held company's sales are up nearly 70% since it started to target cheerleaders two years ago. Hoffner estimated that half its sales are to non-cheerleaders.
Kaepa's best national publicity comes from its sponsorship of the UCLA cheerleaders. Whenever the football or basketball teams are on TV, so are the cheerleaders--in their Kaepas.
"We know they're not just doing this for the joy of putting shoes on cheerleaders' feet," said Annette Yu, who coaches the UCLA cheerleaders. "But wherever we go, people notice everything that the cheerleaders wear. The marketers must believe that is effective."