State Farm Unveils Weight-Loss Initiative

Reaches Out to Black Community With 'Celeb Fit Club' Doc

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- What does car insurance have to do with weight loss? State Farm is making the seemingly counterintuitive connection with an ambitious online and special-events effort aimed at challenging the African-American community to collectively lose 50 million pounds.
Dr. Ian Smith
Dr. Ian Smith has launched the 50 Million Pound Challenge to help African-Americans lose weight.

The unlikely association began when the top marketing executive at State Farm, Pam El, sat next to Dr. Ian Smith on a panel talking about the topic of branding at the Black Enterprise Entrepreneur Conference in Dallas nearly two years ago. Dr. Smith is the author of several diet books, including the "Fat Smash Diet," and has risen to relative celebrity status in recent years for his role on VH-1's "Celebrity Fit Club" and BET's "Meet the Faith."

"After the panel I asked him what else he wanted to do with his life, and he started talking about his vision and desire to help African-Americans lose weight and become healthier and stop dying from preventable diseases," said Ms. El, VP-marketing at State Farm. "I just got goose bumps when he told me that because I knew that would be the kind of initiative State Farm would want to be involved in."

Needed an emotional connection
The timing was indeed right. State Farm recently had wrapped up marketing research on its African-American customers seeking to define the most important issues facing the community. The findings concluded that family, finances and fitness were key areas where State Farm needed to "emotionally connect" via its advertising and marketing efforts. With a 25% market share in the African-American community, it's an important demographic for State Farm, Ms. El added.

"We needed to touch the community and do it in a way that was unique for State Farm," Ms. El said. "Hooking up with Dr. Ian was an absolute plus. The beauty was, it was his dream and his desire, and we chose to sponsor it, and he now talks about the challenge everywhere he goes. Every time he's on TV or radio, he's talking about the challenge."

So far, the grass-roots-style effort has gained momentum. Since the April 7 launch of the 50 Million Pound Challenge (tagline: "Give up the Pounds, Not the Fight!") more than 2,180 teams and 227,000 total participants have signed on at An online ticker keeps an hourly tally of pounds lost (as of 9 a.m. on Sept. 27, 781,611 have been shed.)

Ironically enough, on the challenge website, where teams can post results, one of State Farm's biggest competitor, Allstate, has a company team that has lost a combined 29.18 pounds. Ms. El herself is a participant and has lost 39 pounds since the launch.

"I'm an African-American myself and have struggled with weight loss. It's a great program for the community and it makes you feel good. In my career of over 20 years in business, it's the most important effort I've worked on," she said.

Resonating with women
The challenge has been resonating best among females, which represent 80% of the participants. The age range "sweet spot" is 35 to 40 years old, Ms. El said.
Pam El, State Farm's marketing VP, is not only supporting the challenge, but she's also taking part.
Pam El, State Farm's marketing VP, is not only supporting the challenge, but she's also taking part.

Additionally, more than 250,000 "Challenge Kits" have been handed out via State Farm's 17,000 agents nationwide. Developed by Dr. Smith, it includes a brochure, CD and pedometer.

"It's really good for the agents in the communities to connect with new customers and it's good for our brand," Ms. El said.

The centerpiece of the effort is a 14-city tour with extravagant events lasting as long as three hours. For instance, in Atlanta, more than 20,000 attended. Dr. Smith hosts all the events and often brings in a co-host, Steve Harvey or Jay Anthony Brown of the Tom Joyner show. Additionally, the events have featured live music, with entertainers including Patti LaBelle, Keith Sweat and "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard.

"We chose cities that have a large African-American population. Chicago, Washington, Memphis, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, Houston, Oakland and New Orleans," Ms. El said. "We are able to get the attention of the local media and support from the community."

Broader marketing support
State Farm also has been backing the effort with TV spots, radio and print ads, via its African-American advertising agency, Sanders/Wingo, El Paso, Texas. The spots have been running on African-American media outlets, including BET and Mr. Smith's "Meet the Faith" show and on the Urban Radio Network, the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" and the "Steve Harvey Morning Show."

State Farm did not disclose the spending, but, Ms. El said the "biggest messaging bucket is pubic relations."

The effort has also received the backing of the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.

Although Ms. El said State Farm has advertised frequently on reality TV shows with a weight-loss theme, including "The Biggest Loser" and "Celebrity Fit Club," where Dr. Smith stars, she's not expecting the challenge to evolve into a TV show, although she's not opposed to it, either.

Would support a TV show
"I can't tell you what's going to happen," she said. "We are very close to Ian, and he is really creative. We are working together great. If it could be a TV show and it would be tasteful and helpful to people, I would absolutely support that."

Indeed, Ms. El said State Farm is increasingly looking for more branded-entertainment opportunities.

"We are playing a lot in those arenas as we move forward, because the 30-second commercial is not the solution anymore," she said.
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