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Companies Hit the Streets to Sell Products to Teens

Marketing: Grass-roots tactics that were first used in the music business spread to other fields.


CHICAGO — Dissatisfied with traditional marketing efforts to reach today's teenagers, a handful of companies are taking to the streets, using grass-roots tactics in an effort to gain influence and create excitement about their products.

Record companies have used street marketing for years as a means of promoting new artists, and now the approach is being adopted by marketing teams behind major companies hawking products ranging from soft drinks to watches.

"Marketers are just waking up to it," said Janine Misdom, partner at Sputnik, a New York trend-tracking and market research firm specializing in urban youth. "You're seeing bigger and bigger brands learning how to do it."

Athletic shoe makers are at the forefront of this trend. To promote the release of its Dennis Rodman All Star 91 basketball Solomon shoe,

Converse Inc. has hired a team of 10 urban youths to "seed" the market. For $350 a week, the youths--handpicked for their influence in the neighborhoods and their knowledge of both fashion and basketball--distribute stickers and display advance versions of the new Rodman shoe.

"They're all very clued in to the fashion and basketball enthusiast market in the market where they're from," said Jim Solomon, Converse's senior vice president of global marketing.

Solomon said his company also has a team seeding the shoes with high school and college basketball teams, which are less driven by fashion than on-court performance. "We believe in the grass roots," Solomon said.


Converse will back the All Star 91, named after Rodman's uniform number, with a major TV, radio and outdoor advertising campaign featuring the infamous Chicago Bulls rebounder.

Converse's seeding teams follow in the successful footsteps of rivals Reebok and L.A. Gear, both of which have used the practice to target their brands to young consumers.

L.A. Gear Inc., based in Santa Monica, has hired Asylm Marketing, a Los Angeles company specializing in promoting recording artists, to apply its street savvy to promoting two new shoe brands: Mongo, aimed at hip 16- to 28-year-olds, and Digit 3, a shoe for skateboarding and other action board sports.

The company tapped its network of 150 strategically selected youths in 90 cities to promote the products.

"I'm a firm believer that perception is reality. We really work on creating perception, which sometimes is more important than creating reality," said Scott Leonard, a partner at Asylm, which helped promote a number of record artists including Bush, Bjork, Live and Smashing Pumpkins.

Leonard said more mainstream companies are coming to him with help in reaching teens. In addition to the L.A. Gear launch, Asylm is working on the introduction of Spoon, a new watch brand from Seiko Corp. In another grass-roots effort, PepsiCo Inc.'s Mountain Dew this summer has teamed with hip-hop music bible The Source magazine, sponsoring a 13-city van tour. Six specially equipped, $150,000 vans go to neighborhood haunts, distributing music, T-shirts and Mountain Dew.

Black Entertainment Television and 10 record companies have also signed up for the tour, which will appear at parks, church picnics, parades and school playgrounds. "It's not only reaching them where they live, but where they hang out," said Jon Harris, a spokesman for Mountain Dew.

"We know that our consumers see through commercialization and over-commercialization," said Harris. "Teaming up with The Source provides a great vehicle to connect with consumers in a meaningful way."

For marketers such as Converse, Seiko and Pepsi, teens represent a particularly attractive target, controlling $103 billion in spending last year, said Peter Zollo, president of Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill.

"Unlike Generation X, who are paying off college debt, generation Y--these teens--don't have any payments to hold them down, so they can blow their money on whatever they want," Zollo said.

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