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Promo Party

Spring break in Panama City Beach, FL, may have seemed like a typical wild college party. But Successful Promotions got a firsthand look at why it was also a super shindig for marketers craving the highly coveted college market.

From the moment that spring breakers set foot on Panama City Beach, a relaxed atmosphere takes over. But the initial sedated beach attitude wears off once they get a peek at the array of companies set up on the beach – as well as the wealth of free stuff they’re giving away.

Everyone moves quickly, kicking up sand to get in line at the sponsorship huts. Hands reach for a selection of items. Pens scribble furiously to sign up for contests and information. The buzz about free goods fills the air. And so do some of the products themselves, especially in front of the mtvU (MTV’s all-college network) stage. The second the sound of a guitar sneaks out of the amp, students fill the area in front of the stage as quickly as bartenders pour beers at the nearby Club LaVela. And they keep all their free goodies in tow. Girls have tote bags from American Eagle slung over their shoulders. Guys have mtvU beach mats peeking out of their backpacks.

And almost everyone sports a spring break T-shirt. But that doesn’t stop them from jumping on friends’ shoulders and reaching out to snag more free T-shirts that mtvU VJs and bands like All American Rejects throw into the crowd during their live performances. The entire space is covered in promotional products.

Approximately 325,000 students traveled to Panama City Beach, FL, between March and April. And they brought in an estimated $170 million to the area, according to Jayna Leach, director of marketing at Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a tremendous economic impact,” says Leach. And college students are a coveted demographic with strong purchasing power. “From what I’ve heard, what you buy in college or what you decide to use then is oftentimes what you’ll use 10 years down the road,” says Leach. Does that make spring break a prime target for users of promotional products? Absolutely.

“Spring break is inherent with the college audience,” says Chris McCarthy, head of marketing and strategic development at mtvU. “And the college kids of today are the mass consumers of tomorrow.” mtvU’s programming reaches 740 college campuses nationwide and has organized spring break activities in Panama City Beach for three years. And, according to research by Vacation Connections, marketers spent more than $75 million in March trying to reach the spring break crowd.

“Spring break is a very effective channel because you have a huge cross section of students coming from various markets. It allows the brand marketers to reach that dynamic group of students,” says Doug Akin, vice president of Mr. Youth, a youth marketing agency.

And those marketers came up with some creative campaigns to reach students. Here’s how three companies used promotional products to impress and attract the market of carefree college students on spring break.

MSN Networks with a Hip Crowd
Since the Internet is a way of life in any college dorm, it wasn’t surprising to find a spot for MSN among the straw-topped huts of the mtvU Spring Break Village.

The company was promoting its Spaces blogging service and Windows Live Spaces. Set to launch this summer, Windows Live Spaces will allow users to post short films and blogs about social issues. For blogging about their great spring break moments on Spaces, students were entered into a contest to win thousands of dollars, flat screen TVs, Xbox 360s and travel certificates. And for simply stopping by the hut, 14,000 students snagged a imprinted drawstring bag packed with beach gear like promotional water bottles, beach balls, caps and towels. “As they continue to wear the hat or use the towel, they’ll keep thinking of MSN Spaces and Windows Live Messenger,” says Jana Thomas, one of the promotional consultants that put together the MSN goodie bag.

“And when you’re on spring break in Florida, who doesn’t need a water bottle and a beach ball?” asks Nelson Jay, a promotional consultant who works with Thomas. Tons of young people were sipping from the water bottles all day long. And there was never a moment when a beach ball didn’t fly through the air, whether in a lighthearted game of volleyball or while everyone was dancing by the mtvU stage to live music from bands like Hawthorne Heights. “Later, when they’re back on campus thinking about a communications service, they’ll hopefully think back on the great times they had on the beach in Florida and remember MSN,” says Jay.

Gillette Uses a Sharp Idea
The beach can be a tough place for anybody to show off. But women, especially, feel the need to be at their smoothest when on the sand. So it’s only natural that Gillette had bright pink tents set up on the beach promoting its line of Venus Vibrance razors. “The women are seeking warm weather, so they’re certainly thinking about shaving on a daily basis when they hit the beach,” says Kara Salzillo, manager of brand communications for Gillette. On any given day at any time, the tents were packed with women who presumably wanted to bid adieu to their body hair, but who got more than just smooth legs.

Once in the Venus tents, female spring breakers had two choices. They could score a free hot pink shower radio and be on their way or stick around for a relaxing massage. “Our brand is about giving women the tools to make them feel confident and beautiful,” says Salzillo.

Some women walked away from the tent glowing and relaxed from the massages. Others just left with a radio that can be used again and again. “If they walk away with the little pink radio and set it by their side at the beach, that’s a good reminder of the brand both that day and in the future,” says Salzillo. And at the hotels, Venus continued to make impressions with goodie bags that were handed out to guests upon check-in. The bags included a coupon for $4 off a Venus razor and a small Goddess Revealed magazine packed with beauty and style tips.

AE Bags Bring Style to the Beach
American Eagle Outfitters sells hip and laidback clothing for 15- to 25-year olds. No wonder AE promoted its signature style during spring break by handing out beach tote bags. The soft and lightweight bags feature a bold AE eagle logo. And everywhere you looked on the beach, it was like a flock of AE birds.

What was the best part about these stylish bags? Students didn’t have to go out of their way to get them. Hordes of young people would appear at beach entrances with a slew of the bags. And by the end of the day, the bags were piled high in the sand for the picking. If you wanted one, you just took it out of the pile. And there were four colors to choose from. The wide and comfortable shoulder strap made the bag super convenient for carrying towels, flip-flops and a change of clothes for after a day on the beach.

“It’s really not about using just any product, but making sure it’s valuable and relevant,” says mtvU’s McCarthy. “This was a great way to get their product in trendsetting hands.”

And the influence of the product remains long after the week-long vacation ends. “A really appealing factor is that the students are down there for a week, so the branding can have long-term impact,” Akin says, adding that items like the AE bag can be used months later and will remind users of their spring break memories. “They can have a lot of recurring messaging that translates through the entire course of the week.”

Article by Sheila Beringer. Reprinted with permission of Successful Promotions, copyright 2006.

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