The Waldwick, N.J., resident is part of a grassroots movement called "geocaching," an underground hobby that uses a global positioning system receiver to hide or find containers (caches) that contain a logbook and often some trinkets. But it might soon be more aptly named "geobranding." Indeed, within the promising world of mobile marketing, geocaching represents a mix of burgeoning consumer trends, from satellite technology to social-networking sites, that advertisers can latch on to to attract an audience.
It certainly takes the scavenger hunt to a whole new level of branding potential. Using dozens of caching web sites (such as Geocaching.com), networked geocachers don't necessarily need a host of high-tech gadgets beyond GPS devices that can now be had for about $100, but it sure helps to have a cellphone, digital camera or some kind of wireless device to call in your finds or post them online. And most geocachers do -- making them an ideal affluent and technologically savvy niche to target in a burgeoning digital advertising age.
Since finding his first cache -- Mr. Levine signed a logbook, took a pin and left a craft kit -- he has not only turned his wife and two daughters into fans, but also found 610 more caches, created the blog Cachingcentral.com and just returned from a family vacation in British Columbia and Alaska aimed at digging up new finds.
"It's just exciting to find something out in the wilderness or locally where hundreds of people walk by it a day and don't know it's there," Mr. Levine said.
Jeep's seven-month contest
Chrysler's Jeep brand is an early adopter. After a mini-geocaching campaign in 2005, Jeep is launching a seven-month geocaching contest in conjunction with Geocaching.com; the grand prize, naturally, is a Jeep vehicle. But Chrysler is an anomaly. The first marketers to co-opt the fad aren't big-budget marketers and edgy lifestyle brands -- they're tourism bureaus.
Rather than follow the tourist ad status quo and dump media dollars into two-dimensional print ads, Travel Montana just wrapped up a 28-day, web-based geocaching ad campaign in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market to lure tourists to the state.
"We found out this was really a passionate group of people," said Katy Peterson, consumer marketing manager at Travel Montana, which hid postcards at tourism hot spots to drive business for the attractions. The first tourist to dial in received the prizes, such as $50 gas cards, MP3 players and state park passes.
"At first we were worried that this was too niche of an activity," Ms. Peterson said, but participants ran the gamut from young families with children to baby boomers and even teens.
While the nontraditional campaign relied on $125,000 in traditional media -- a Twin Cities radio campaign and print ads in local lifestyle magazines -- to create buzz, the return on investment ran deep.
"It allowed us to create an interactive campaign that made an actual connection and built relationships with travelers," Ms. Peterson said.
Liane Crawford, marketing and communications manager at the Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands Visitor's Bureau in Florida, said geocaching lends itself to an intimate relationship with devotees of the hobby. In a six-week period this spring, an online campaign aimed at creating an e-mail database easily yielded 3,000 plus addresses.
"It's a way to tap into a niche market that's already in place," Ms. Crawford said.
Viral effect stretches ad dollars
The viral nature of geocaching made her marketing dollars go further, she added, because it costs little to plant 25 caches at tourist attractions in Charlotte Harbor and create a website for geocachers to post their finds. And local business put up the prizes in exchange for promotion during the contest.
Ms. Crawford joked that she might only have a budget of $400,000 a year, but she "can tap into multimillion-dollar satellites the government owns to lead people to our attractions."
But as more brands tap into geocaching, will devotees of the hobby view it as an intrusion? Mr. Levine doesn't think it will, at least initially. "I don't see anything wrong with some commercialization of the hobby," he said. "It will introduce new folks to the hobby that might not stumble on it some other way."
For Jeep, perhaps it's already worked out. Mr. Levine's latest vehicle? A Jeep Wrangler.