Urban warfare

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A pre-teen girl, her hair braided in cornrows, stands in a Churchs Chicken parking lot on Chicago's west side, holding a can of RC cola and staring at a storm drain. "I want to see you pour it out," Robert "Biz" Watson urges.

"What do you like to drink?" he asks, egging the girl on in front of a growing crowd as she emptied the can. "Coke," she replies sheepishly, before weaving her way through the group of 20 or so men and women waiting for a free can of the fizzy brown cola.

Just moments earlier, the parking lot had been empty. Within a quarter hour, two coolers of Coke have been emptied and Team Classic is packing up its van and moving on to a nearby housing project.

Welcome to the world of urban marketing, where guerrilla marketing groups take to the sweltering streets to engage in a block-by-block battle to win over the hearts and wallets of lower-income, mostly African-American consumers.

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Mr. Watson is the leader of Team Classic, an urban marketing group deployed by Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago. Team Classic is far from alone; Pepsi-Cola Co. and Dr Pepper/Seven Up are also replaying summer street scenes such as the one above on a daily basis.

African-Americans are seen as a crucial market for flavor-soda brands such as Coca-Cola's Sprite, PepsiCo's Mountain Dew and Dr Pepper, which are growing faster than the carbonated soft-drink category as a whole.

Tapping into the hip-hop culture, in fact, has been a key driver in Sprite's growth, which shot up 128% to 671.5 million cases in 1999 from 295 million in 1990, according to Beverage Digest.

According to Target Market News, an urban research group, African-Americans account for $1.26 billion in soft drink sales annually, although other estimates have estimated the total as high as $8 billion or more. It's therefore clear why soft-drink marketers increasingly are turning to culture-savvy street marketers to attract their dollars -- and those of Hispanics -- as they focus on 12-to-38-year-old urban trendsetters.

LEERY OF MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Urban youth, leery of or unreachable by mainstream TV and radio, view street marketing as more authentic, said Maze Jackson, director of urban marketing at Montgomery, Zukerman, Davis, Chicago, the ad agency that handles Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago's local urban initiative. "If they see something on the street, it lends credibility because it doesn't have a corporate feel," he says.

From April through October, Sunday through Thursday, the 3 to 4 person Team Classic and 3 to 4 person Team Sprite crisscross the country's third-largest city and surrounding area. They stop at parades, festivals, schools and scheduled events, and make impromptu stops wherever there's a crowd, spending from 15 minutes to 4 hours at each venue. Before the seven-month season is over, they may visit a single housing project, community center or local park 30 times.

With their red and green vinyl-wrapped vans, embellished with brand logos and murals of neighborhood landmarks, the two vans attract crowds -- even before they park and start playing rearview mirror-shaking hip-hop music and dispensing icy sodas in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. They distribute 70 cases each day -- 30 of Sprite and 40 of Coke -- promoting soft drinks as if they were a record label, with sampling, wild postings and image-making. The teams work 10- and 12-hour days.

"We incorporate ourselves into the urban landscape" by being connected to the hip-hop lifestyle through music, sports and fashion, Mr. Jackson says.

Most soft-drink companies conduct nationwide sampling programs, concentrating on low-volume areas or local markets as part of the larger effort. No. 3 marketer Dr Pepper/Seven Up, for example, teams with The Source for its Block Shaker Tour, blasting music, offering samples and staging hip-hop performances from Philadelphia to Cleveland to San Francisco.

From spring through fall since 1997, No. 2 soft drink marketer PepsiCo has sent a fleet of six UPS-style step vans and six Ford F-150 trucks equipped with disc jockeys to black and Hispanic neighborhoods in 22 cities. As the DJs ask participants at schools, parks and basketball courts to sing and rap for Mountain Dew items, workers distribute 20-ounce bottles with under-the-cap offers for another free bottle.

MORE THAN QUENCHING THIRST

These programs have spurred high single-digit volume increases in black and Hispanic markets, says Stan Kaczmarek, marketing manager for the Greater Chicago Division of Pepsi-Cola General Bottlers. The effort is partially funded by local bottlers; Tracey-Locke Partnership, Dallas, and GMR Marketing, New Berlin, Wis., provide marketing support. "We're getting a hand in the target market in a way that we really leave impressions with them that this is a cool product. There's more to it than quenching your thirst," a Pepsi spokesman says.

Nationally, Coca-Cola North America uses a variety of street marketing resources, including KBA, New York, for Manhattan and Los Angeles, and dRush, Union City, N.J. for New Jersey. A spokeswoman said additional local bottlers are looking to begin street marketing programs.

Locally, Coke's marketing efforts resemble a New Age beverage outfit rather than a 114-year-old company with billion-dollar brands.

"We want to be sure we're hopping around different neighborhoods," says Ron Nota, VP-marketing for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago -- which markets brands in Chicago, Wisconsin, Indiana, western Pennsylvania and upstate New York. "The street teams evolved like record-company promoters, going straight to consumers. That's how a lot of hip-hop artists got going."

The Chicago bottler started using sampling vehicles 13 years ago and staffed them with college students who worked part-time. The company aligned itself with the National Basketball Association just as the Chicago Bulls were building a basketball dynasty, and toured the city with a semi-trailer equipped with basketball hoops and music.

As the bottler began to refine its consumer target -- inner-city residents -- the idea of the NBA-oriented semi no longer made sense. "You're just not going to take this big vehicle into the neighborhoods," Mr. Nota says. So he converted one of his vans and souped it up with hip-hop imagery and musical equipment. Few workers, however, were willing to work the inner city.

Then came Mr. Jackson, a 28-year-old music promoter and son of a pastor and teacher, hired in 1997 by Montgomery, Zukerman, Davis to bring fresh ideas into the bottler's African-American consumer marketing program. He devised a plan to use hip-hop marketing methods to make the Coca-Cola brands more relevant to urban consumers, including mobile promotions, wild postings musicians use to promote concerts, local rapper endorsements and CD compilations. Record companies provide CDs, posters and other giveaways.

STRONG GROWTH

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago agreed to the plan, providing the 10-year-old van, cases of soda and a staff of two. Mr. Jackson would not give specifics but says that by the end of the first summer, sales grew at twice the national average. "Generally speaking, we've seen stronger sales growth in the inner city; it's outpaced the general growth rate," Mr. Nota says.

Within a year, Sprite leapfrogged over Pepsi-Cola to No. 2 in sales in Chicago's black neighborhoods, lagging only the discounted Royal Crown, Mr. Jackson says.

That's a claim Pepsi questions, a company spokesman says, noting that brand Pepsi's share far outpaces Sprite's in Chicago.

The effort was considered successful enough, however, for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago to step up its push. It outfitted shiny new vans with three Autotek amplifiers, four 15-inch subwoofers, four exterior-mounted speakers and four 6x9 speakers powered by a Clarion stereo system. A costly effort, although neither Mr. Nota nor Mr. Jackson would discuss the budget for the marketing sweep.

With his background as an entertainment reporter and promotions coordinator for an adult urban contemporary radio station in Chicago, Mr. Jackson is a chameleon -- sounding like his white visitors but shifting to street dialects when talking to potential Coke fans along the route.

"You can't just show up [here and start marketing]. You have to understand it, have to live it. If you don't live the lifestyle, you don't know, and it becomes very, very apparent very quickly," Mr. Jackson says. "It takes a special person to pull up to the Robert Taylor Homes," a notorious housing project on Chicago's south side.

Mr. Jackson assembled his team of top street promoters who were already working for music companies. They wear dreads, braids, red Team Classic and green Team Sprite jerseys and loose -- but not baggy -- clothing. "We had to make sure they fit in the community but still fit with the Coke image," Mr. Watson says.

Team members are skilled street negotiators and navigators who translate information gathered en route into marketing opportunities. Astute trendwatchers, they distribute 10-minute calling cards bearing the Coke logo in areas where many residents don't have telephones.

LOGOS ARE VALUED

Because name brands are popular among blacks, just about anything with a logo is a valued item. The team recently gave away 1-inch Coke stickers to kids who stuck them on their clothes in places populated by alligators and polo ponies in tonier neighborhoods.

"We try to look for things that are the most practical and have the most long-reaching effect in a community," Mr. Jackson says. "We look for things that will be valuable."

It wouldn't appear a marketer would have to work to give away 70 cases of soda on a hot Chicago day, but Mr. Watson says newcomers who don't show the proper deference will be shunned -- or may not make it out of the projects with their persons or vans intact. He says a competing team ran into trouble last year and its vehicle was destroyed.

"You can't go in with the attitude like, `We're trying to do you a favor' because if you do, they'll tell you, `We don't need no charity,' " he says.

The teams must also learn to navigate gang-infested neighborhoods. Mr. Jackson says one reason his plan has been successful in the canyons of housing projects is that his team understands the sway of the Folks, People and other Chicago street gangs. In turn, the gang-bangers -- marked by their colors or the way they wear their hats -- frequently help corral kids waiting for chilled soda cans. "We recognize everybody's authority," Mr. Jackson says. "Our street team has to know what will be offensive. It could be having a pants leg rolled up a certain way."

Even before the vans pulled into the west side's Rockwell Gardens projects and started playing their throbbing rap music (cleansed of profanity), kids dropped their basketballs and ran across the parking lot. As they lined up, team members reminded them to mind their manners.

ROLE MODELS

"We always make the kids say `please' and `thank you,' " Mr. Jackson says, while parked beside the United Center. "Some kids aren't the most well-trained."

They also urge the kids to pick up their cans, be polite and stay in school, a tall order in a city where the dropout rate is 15.8% compared with 11.8% nationally. "We become role models by default," Mr. Jackson says.

The street teams don't open cans to parcel out the liquid -- even when the crowd overwhelms supply. Instead they award cans to people who correctly answer impromptu quizzes -- on sports ("What year did Michael Jordan enter the NBA?"), Chicago ("Who is your school named after?"), trivia ("What's the Sprite slogan?") and black history.

Mr. Jackson says the bottler's urban initiative has gotten more effective at managing its marketing dollars, adding he has turned down $10,000 requests to put up a Coca-Cola or Sprite banner or sponsor an event because he can park outside for free. "This costs less than a billboard," he says. "When we pull up, everyone comes running to the vans anyway. How can you argue with mobile advertising?"

He says the outlay is less than TV or radio airtime and more effective than showing up at fund-raisers held by black civic groups. "Our target is 12- to 24-year-olds. How many of them go to $100-a-plate dinners?" Another reason for the teams' success is their agility, Mr. Jackson says. "It really takes a leap of faith. You have to be flexible. The problem with most corporations and marketers is that by the time something's hot or on their radar, the scene's already passed," Mr. Jackson says. He says the vans can shift from a dull location to a happening spot at the flick of an ignition.

Mr. Jackson is loyal to everything Coca-Cola. He drives a Coke-red Lincoln Navigator, says he's fired people for drinking Pepsi off the clock and won't eat at restaurants that pour Pepsi, including PepsiCo spinoffs KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

"This is what feeds my family," says the father of an 8-month-old daughter and husband to his college sweetheart. "We work in teams. We walk, talk, eat and sleep Coke and Sprite."

On the job, when breathless kids run up to the van and ask for a "pop," he tries to reinforce brand identity.

"You want a what?" Mr. Jackson chides one.

"A pop," the kid replies.

"A what?" he repeats.

"A POP," the child sputters, oblivious.

"You mean a Coke or a Sprite," Mr. Jackson says.

"Yeah," the kid smiles.

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