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|ESPN began running the avatar feature on Voice of the Fan last year, but the Wendy’s sponsorship is new. Since avatars were introduced last year, 175,000 characters have been created.
Those reading her post, however, might be forgiven for assuming she was a he -- specifically a red-headed man, wearing green shades and a fluffy white ski jacket. ESPN’s Voice of the Fan chat rooms -- where sports fans gab, prod, gripe and brag about teams and players -- let users create a cartoon character, known as an avatar, to represent them online.
ESPN began running the avatar feature on Voice of the Fan last year, but the Wendy’s sponsorship is new. Since avatars were introduced last year, 175,000 characters have been created. Hannah could have picked a female character dressed in a business suit with spiky hair, or wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Wendy’s hamburger or the fast-food chain’s logo (but not, sadly, the pigtailed Wendy’s girl).
Wendy’s International is the first brand to advertise on the Voice of the Fan and has created a contest around it. The fan who enters the best avatar gets a chance to win a trip to ESPN’s Espy Awards. The burger chain’s objective is to attract men aged 18 to 34 in a way that subtly promotes its new branding message, "Don’t Compromise. Personalize." One avatar is chosen each week to run on one of ESPN’s TV shows, such as “SportsCenter” or “Quite Frankly.”
“The Voice of the Fan is embedded in personalization,” said Michelle Fedurek, Wendy’s VP-media strategies. “We make hamburgers the way you want them -- it was really a nice sync behind who we are as a brand.”
Wendy’s, which will buy $325 million worth of media this year, spends just more than 2% on Internet marketing, Ms. Fedurek said. Most of the other online plays are brand advertising. She said the ESPN.com promotion is “probably our strongest tie-in.”
Voice of the Fan users can pass on a link for their friends to create their own avatars. So far, the open rate for the pass-alongs is 70%. About 30% of those who receive the link in turn and create their own avatars.
Oddcast, a technology company that develops avatars and user-generated media products, is behind the ESPN avatars. Users create their alter-egos by choosing from a range of faces, hairstyles, clothing and accessories presented to them before they record their messages. The avatars have eyes that follow a computer curser and lips that move and natural-looking facial expressions. Users can choose from among 15 different “people.” Users' rants can be record either by phone or microphone or through text-to-speech postings. A button to send an e-mail to a friend is prominently displayed right beneath the customizable features.
Holding a burger
The site’s background is in Wendy’s yellow-and-orange trademark colors. Users can choose Wendy’s backgrounds for their avatar that include the chain’s logo and hamburgers. One accessory choice is to have an avatar hold a Wendy’s burger. A Wendy’s skyscraper ad aligns the left-side of the page, along with several other logos strategically placed. The logo “Don’t Compromise. Personalize” appears at the top of the page.
“This gives fans -- particularly young men -- a chance to voice their opinion in a fun way and it gives us a chance to wrap our brand in a way that should be fun, engaging and irreverent,” Ms. Fedurek said. “We want to engage them with our brand, not just talk at them.”
The reason the open pass-along rates are so high is because the consumer “is creating new ad experiences,” said Adi Sideman, president-CEO of Oddcast. “It’s contextual. It’s complementing the creation, not just accompanying it. It’s like product placement.”