Boost Mobile's Reliance on Entertainment Pays Off

Outspent By Bigger Rivals, Brand's Nontraditional Marketing Lures Young Target

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The deal: With bigger rivals outspending it in marketing and with newcomers emerging, Sprint Nextel's Boost Mobile is relying on entertainment more than ever as a way to target teens and young adults with its phones.

The result: The strategy has helped boost the number of subscribers, as well as generate online buzz and create a brand around its catchphrase and chirp.

Boost Mobile wants to make sure you hear its chirp.
Boost will host a concert for its Boost Mobile Rock Corps., an organization that encourages youth to volunteer in their communities. The music-driven effort fits into Boost's nontraditional marketing strategy.

Since its launch nearly two years ago, the Irvine, Calif.-based company, a division of Sprint Nextel Corp., has been targeting 14- to 24-year-olds with its pay-as-you-go wireless service.

But it faces competition from rivals such as Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile, as well as newcomers such as Amp'd and Helio, which boast similar services and their own marketing efforts focused on young adults. So Boost has turned to entertainment as a nontraditional marketing tool, using existing content and self-produced programming to promote its "Where you at?" slogan and signature chirp sound, heard whenever its walkie-talkie service is used.

But it hasn't been afraid to try some new forms of branded entertainment.

'Aqua Teen Hunger Force' integration

Late last year, Boost Mobile struck a deal with Cartoon Network to be written into an episode of the animated "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," which airs on the cable channel's late-night "Adult Swim" programming block.

In the episode, the show's Master Shake character makes a promotional deal with Boost Mobile and, in an over-the-top integration, is constantly heard saying "Where you at?" while hyping the company's services and handsets. In addition to logos, two Boost phones -- the Tattoo and i830 -- appear as characters in the episode.

It was the first time the series had integrated a marketer in the show, and Boost wasn't the only one; a talking can of Unilever's Axe deodorant also made a cameo at the end of the episode.

"Whenever we're putting together product placement or an integration or creating content, the goal is to marry up the brand's positioning and statement -- something irreverent but smart and savvy at the same time," said Sandy Constan, senior partner, group media director at MindShare, Los Angeles, Boost Mobile's media buyer. Ms. Constan worked with Adult Swim, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force's" writers and Boost Mobile executives to develop the script for the episode.

"Our audience wants to be spoken to in a manner that they appreciate," Ms. Constan said. "They know marketing, but they appreciate good marketing."

The "Aqua Teen" episode, entitled "Boost Mobile," aired Dec. 11, just in time for the lucrative holiday shopping season, and has been repeated numerous times on the network, ranking as one of the series' most-watched episodes.

"It was ideal for us, in terms of sales," Ms. Constan said. "It's the heaviest time period of the year."

RipeTV's 'Urban Runnings'

This year, Boost partnered with RipeTV, an online channel of programming -- short-form series featuring bikini-clad women, extreme sports, music and viral videos -- for males 18-34, to produce "Urban Running," a four-part series that followed athletes involved in the extreme sport of parkour who climb buildings or use everyday elements around cities to perform dangerous stunts.

The four episodes, each around six minutes in length, didn't feature Boost handsets in the footage, but showed the company's logo and had athletes say the "Where you at?" tagline.

When it launched in February, visitors to the site spent an average of two minutes viewing content, but that time increased to six minutes for "Urban Runnings." The site proved attractive to Boost not only for the male-skewing demo it reaches but also because its content is available online, to Comcast subscribers through video-on-demand and on mobile phones.

"With online content, we can see how long they're tuning in, when they're tuning out and which program or Web site they're going to after," Ms. Constan said.

In addition to its animated and online efforts, Boost also has worked itself into reality shows on MTV, including "Pimp My Ride," "Made," "Yo Mamma" and "The Assistant," and partnered with college-based MTVU.

Concert tour for volunteer corp

This summer Boost will host its second annual concert for volunteers that are part of its Boost Mobile Rock Corps., an organization that encourages youth to volunteer in their communities. Last September, the event, which took place in New York's Radio City Music Hall, featured musical acts such as Kanye West, Paul Wall, Fat Joe, Slim Thug, T.I. and Young Jeezy, with 5,000 volunteers receiving tickets as part of a reward for their efforts.

This year, a concert tour will kick off June 16 in Atlanta for volunteers, with the event culminating once again at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 23. The hour-long concert will be recorded and broadcast on MTV2.

Since its launch nearly two years ago, Boost has had an affiliation with sports -- namely action sports such as skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding. It was only over the last several years that it became heavily associated with music, especially urban-music artists.

In keeping with that image, the company in May announced a deal with actor-producer-music artist Nick Cannon to star in the company's advertising campaign to promote its Call Tones service.

The four planned ads starring Mr. Cannon already have launched and appear on several Web sites, including Boost Mobile's official MySpace profile, which has amassed 15,541 "friends." Its Boost Mobile Rock Corps. has 6,264 friends.

Boost, like a number of brands across multiple categories, is turning to entertainment as a way to reach lucrative young consumers who increasingly are tuning out traditional advertising, including TV, and turning to other forms of media.

Media spending dwarfed by rivals

But Boost didn't really have much of a choice. It spent $500,000 on measured media in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence. While that number increased significantly in 2005, surging to $23 million, it still pales in comparison to what larger mobile-phone powerhouses such as Cingular and T-Mobile spend each year to market their own prepaid phone services. For example, Cingular spent $74 million to push its GoPhone prepaid service in 2005. Helio is launching with a $50 million marketing budget.

"We don't spend as much money as Cingular or a lot of the competition," Ms. Constan said. "We have to do things a little savvier. We have to break the mold."

If sales are any indicator, the entertainment strategy is working. In the first quarter of 2006, Boost added 502,000 subscribers, more than doubling its tally during the three-month time period last year, bringing it to 3.1 million subscribers, most of whom are under 25. Boost execs have said it can take almost five months to recoup its marketing costs to acquire customers.

"In terms of branded content, we're trying to integrate into the lives of our consumers," Ms. Constan said.

Mark Rice, managing director at MindShare, said, "We want to make sure we're embedded where these people are and most likely to feel the brand. That means figuring out how [Boost] would best allocate their marketing resources, how to spend it and how to spend it well to get the best return for their money."

Sales and subscriber churn rate

Naturally, sales and the company's churn rate for subscribers are the best indicators of whether nontraditional marketing is working. But Mindshare also helps Boost track aided and unaided awareness generated by its entertainment projects.

Specific financials around the branded-entertainment projects were not disclosed, but MindShare packaged the deals as part of an overall media buy for Boost, with online elements negotiated as an added value. Traditional media, executives said, is to drive sales and awareness, while branded entertainment helps the brand "stick out from the clutter."

Boost's dependency on entertainment eventually could become a problem, as Amp'd, Helio and Mobile ESPN not only target the same youth market but also build entire marketing campaigns around content such as music, games, video clips and connections to the Internet. The competition could be especially fierce when it comes to music. A number of marketers, including Toyota's Scion division, have focused heavily on tunes, launching concert tours and even starting record labels.

But Boost's marketing team isn't worried. Not yet, anyway.

Music a key component

"It is starting to get crowded out there, but music will still really be important," Ms. Constan said. "Urban music is a core platform for us. Boost has this expertise in doing it in such a way that positions them as the experts in utilizing talent. They're good at discovering talent and capitalizing on talent that's out there and showcasing them in ways that breaks away from the pack and sets an example."

For the rest of the year, Boost isn't shying away from entertainment. The company plans to launch a music-driven ad campaign at the end of the year. It's also looking to push the envelope using other digital platforms and VOD.

"We're also looking at how to use traditional media in a very nontraditional way," Ms. Constan said.
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