State Farm and Alma Use Magical Soccer Balls to Power Up Needy Communities

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For an engineering-class project at Harvard University, four students invented a soccer ball that converts play to energy that can generate light for communities that lack electricity.

Last year, creatives at U.S. Hispanic agency Alma came across a video of the Soccket ball and were intrigued.

Soccket combines a game's popularity with the need for electricity in many Latin American communities.
Soccket combines a game's popularity with the need for electricity in many Latin American communities.

"We knew we had to do something with this ball," said Diego Yurkievich, Alma's senior-VP and executive creative director. "We sent [the video] explaining how the ball works to everyone at the agency, to motivate their minds. We had it in our back pocket."

The creative idea: an interactive platform for soccer fans around Alma client State Farm's sponsorship of the Gold Cup, a Latin American soccer championship. "Play Today, Illuminate Tomorrow" started with an online game on State Farm's Hispanic Facebook page in which players keep a soccer ball in the air. For each minute of play, they accrue points -- "virtual minutes of light" -- toward providing soccer balls to Latin American communities without electricity. Local kids play soccer with the donated balls, which have a unique feature: Every 15 minutes of play generate three hours of power (a fully charged ball) when a light is plugged into a socket embedded in the ball.

Uncharted Play
State Farm and Alma reached out to Julia Silverman, who with former classmate Jessica Matthews formed Uncharted Play to develop the Soccket (which they trademarked) ball they had devised as students. They knew soccer is popular, Ms. Silverman said. "Kids were playing it with plastic bags, shoes, even a brick." And they knew that 20% of the world's population doesn't have access to electrical power.

Ms. Silverman (whose background is in social sciences in the developing world, not engineering) said the first model to prove the concept was a shake-to-charge flashlight inside a hamster ball. That evolved into a soccer ball with a lamp that plugs directly into it. The two pieces are distributed as a set.

"About a year ago, Jessica and I said "We're crazy enough to leave our day jobs to make this project work,' " Ms. Silverman said. Ms. Matthews and Ms. Silverman gone from two people working out of their New York apartments to more than seven staffers when State Farm entered the picture, buying the balls and helping offset costs.

State Farm's platform offered participants other ways to earn points toward donations. They could view freestyle videos from each of the 12 Latin countries playing in the Gold Cup, or download a mobile app.

The goal was to generate 30,000 virtual minutes of light during the Gold Cup tournament. To everyone's surprise, the total came to 142,567 virtual minutes in the first four days, said Juan Diego Guzman, creative director at Alma, which had also partnered with The Marketing Arm on activation. Hispanic insurance quotes and sales also spiked. State Farm is distributing 1,500 soccer balls to the top three countries chosen by participants: Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador.

The online game
The online game

"State Farm is known as the good-neighbor brand and as a good citizen," said Tim Van Hoof, assistant VP-marketing communications at the insurer. "This is an innovative way to help people get to a better state [State Farm's motto]." Mr. Van Hoof said he really liked the way people could send balls to their native country, which enables State Farm to help those in the U.S. continue to be good neighbors back home.

Ms. Silverman said Uncharted Play hopes to have a mass-produced consumer version sold on by the fall. Soccket is being tweaked to make it more durable than the average soccer ball. It will also be more multipurpose.

"We're getting other devices ready to scale up, like a water purifier and a cellphone charger, and we're working on a more energy-efficient lamp," Ms. Silverman said.

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