Going for the Gross-Out

By Published on .

The perfect spokesmen for Slim Jims - wrestlers - obscured the product message. Meat snacks, meet the visible belch.

The Memo

Anyone who has ever lived with, dated, or been a teenage boy knows nothing gets the attention of this demographic group better than a really good, really loud, really juicy belch. That is why, for six years, GoodMark Foods has associated its Slim Jim meat snacks with professional wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage and World Championship Wrestling, the entertainment industry's equivalent of audible indigestion.Wrestling evokes feelings of rebelliousness and irreverence, an in-your-face-despite-the-halitosis sort of humor that appeals to teenage boys.

Slim Jim's ties to wrestling are "brilliant," according to research experts, because the sport-o-tainment so appeals to the guttural instincts of teen boys. Nonetheless, GoodMark felt the campaign needed tweaking, so it recently launched new TVspots featuring "Slim Jim Guy," who, when ingested, causes eruptions in a teenage boy's stomach. Viewers can almost smell the pungent odor of the young man's burp.

"We wanted to find a way of getting even more product identification in the advertisement, and not to make them so much a biography of Randy Savage or to be too distracted from the message of Slim Jim," says Jeff Slater, vice president, marketing, at GoodMark, a division of Conegra. "It was not a question that the other wasn't working. It was just a matter of taking it to the next level."

The Discovery

Slater's brand team knew Slim Jim was established as an "anti-mom" product. "Wrestling was perfect for doing that, but at some point you want to then create a very clearly focused effort against the specific product, to get beyond personality."

While the new Slim Jim Guy spots focus on product "benefits," such as how eating multiple Slim Jims causes indigestion, the company continues to pound in the messages associated with wrestling. Released in September, two new spots and promotional materials feature Savage and his cohort Gorgeous George "going crazy" over Slim Jims in a psychiatric unit.

The brand team used several research tools to determine the campaign's direction, such as attitude and usage surveys; teen panels and focus groups; and syndicated studies about teen behavior from Teenage Research Unlimited, among others.

Several times a year, Stamford, Connecticut-based North Castle Partners conducts panels among 9th- and 10th-graders in area high schools. Students share feelings and ideas about Slim Jim and other subjects, and in exchange, agency executives teach a class about marketing. Slim Jim's brand manager and assistant brand manager recently started doing similar panels in Raleigh, North Carolina, home of GoodMark Foods.

"There is nothing like being face-to-face with the demographic you're trying to sell to," says Slater. "Sometimes it's just the intensity you can't get in numbers, or a feeling or a look."

But high school kids aren't the only ones buying Slim Jims. The brand has a strong following among twentysomethings and even some baby boomers. "We focus on teens because of the value they bring to the young-adult audience as they age up and as adults look upon teens to see what is cool," Slater says. "I view teens as a primary target who grow up to be a secondary target."

And teens are a lucrative market. According to TRU, teen boys spend an average of $59.69 per week. Boys aged 12 to 15 have an average weekly income of $31.85; boys 16 to 17 years have $86.30; and 18- and 19-year-olds have $148.08 to spend.

In addition to money, teen boys have time. "They're not in school all day. They get to go home for lunch, and many drive around during free periods," says Allison Cohen, president of PeopleTalk, a qualitative research agency in New York and Boston. When they're not in school, she says, they go to convenience stores to buy the things mom doesn't serve: meat sticks, salty snacks, hero sandwiches, soft drinks.

Research by various sources indicates Generation Y wants immediacy. GoodMark therefore uses instant win tactics and 800 numbers teens can call immediately, rather than promotional mail-in cards. Teens also like to win, so instead of having a promotion with one large prize, GoodMark gives away many.

The Tactics

A Slim Jim scratch-off game card sweepstakes that ran September through December 1999, for example, offered more than 500,000 prizes. The promotion was tied to the fall release of three video games from 989 Studios, San Diego, California, producer of games for Sony PlayStation consoles. The games provide a virtual product placement for Slim Jim, which appears on wall banners, logos, and bike.

"The sweepstakes is extremely relevant to Slim Jim's core teen target," says Amy Carroll, promotions manager for the brand. "We want to reach teens at their level, in their environment, and video games are a perfect conduit."

Research from TRU and other sources indicates teenage boys play video games from three to six hours a week, and that 75 percent think extreme sports are cool, says Slater. Hence, Slim Jim advertises on the X Games on NBC, World Championship Wrestling, ESPN, and it sponsors Aggressive Skaters Association and NASCAR. A promotion running January through April 2000, for example, focuses on NASCAR racing team Bobby, Terry and Justin Labonte.

The Payoff

The beauty of the new Slim Jim character is that the spots are as memorable as kissing someone who has just eaten a meat snack. "They stick with you," says Barbara Coulon, director of trends at Youth Intelligence in New York City.

Product sales also are strong. According to Information Resources Inc., Slim Jim was the No. 1 brand in the meat-snacks category with sales of $34.8 million in the 52 weeks ending July 18, 1999 (the most recent period for which figures are available). Compared to the same period the year before, sales were up 23.3 percent.

These figures represent sales in supermarkets, drug stores, and mass merchandisers. But Slim Jim's figures likely are much higher, because convenience stores are its No. 1 distribution outlet. GoodMark would not release specific figures; Slater only would say Slim Jim has the dominant share of a growing category.

What The Critics Say

The Slim Jim campaign's best asset is that it knows its target market so completely. "The thing about Generation Y boys is that they are incredibly media savvy," says Coulon. "They can talk the marketing talk. That means they know marketing lingo and can tell if a company is faking it or trying to be something they are not."

She believes the Slim Jim Guy commercials hit home with teen boys because they are irreverent and disgusting, qualities that appeal to the target's bathroom humor. "The character goes against society - he's very outspoken and gross. They like gross."

Cohen of PeopleTalk agrees that the new spots, along with Slim Jim's affiliation with wrestling and extreme sports, are right on target.

"The idea of the product as being not mom-endorsed is important," she says. "It appeals to the behavior teen boys exhibit all day when they are not under mom's thumb," she says. "They are enjoying themselves, having fun. The gross-out factor is perfect."

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