Creating Branded Content for Teens? Keep It Transparent

Fuse's Carter: Don't Dupe Kids or They'll Tear You Down Online

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NEW YORK -- Bill Carter is one of the three partners who make up the backbone of Fuse Marketing, based in Burlington, Vt. Since 1998, he has built the firm into a youth-and-sports powerhouse and a go-to shop for action-sports marketing. He has worked hand-in-hand with Mountain Dew to build the Dew Action Sports tour and manage its sponsorship of the Summer and Winter X Games. This year, Sports Business Journal named Mr. Carter one of "the most influential people in action sports."
Fuse's Bill Carter: 'Once you've gone too far, you have alienated the youth consumer and they are not coming back.'

He talked to Madison & Vine about the kinship he sees between branded content and youth marketing.

Branded content and youth marketing seem like natural siblings. What makes them work together so well? "Branded content works with youth marketing when it's well done and when it's done as both transparent and subtle. I know those things tend to seem to be contradictory of one another. I think that youth are looking for an advertiser relationship to be transparent; they want to know that an advertiser is involved. They don't want to find out later that they've been deceived in any way, whether it's branded content or any other form of marketing. As long as the advertiser is transparent in its relationship in what the content is and what they've put out there, it will be consumed and accepted by youth."

How, then, does an advertiser maintain transparency? "When we worked on the Mountain Dew-sponsored film 'First Descent' [which M&V called one of the top five branded deals of 2005], it was widely publicized that Mountain Dew was the only corporate participant in the film. Yet, when you watched the film, the actual product placement was hardly noticeable. It was very subtle. In fact, there was an effort made to make sure you could see Mountain Dew's competitors had visibility. In other words, Mountain Dew didn't make an attempt to do things in the film that wouldn't have naturally occurred in the context of which the content was, which was snowboarding. If there was a snowboarder featured who was sponsored by a Mountain Dew competitor and that person had a competitor's branding on their clothing or helmet, that was left in the film. There's some credibility that gets built with the youth audience when your brand is willing to do that."

What branded-content opportunities are you and your clients are exploring now? "[My clients] want opportunities that are on-air, online, on-site at the actual event. Many of them are looking for in-store opportunities, and some of them are looking for grass-roots opportunities. ... For every time that they are a sponsor of a large, prominent, televised sports property, they will also be interacting with consumers on a grass-roots, one-on-one level, because they believe that's the way they are demonstrating that they understand action sports and they are sharing the same beliefs that make action sports so great. ... Generally they are looking for and finding the basic components of on-air, on-site, online, in-store and, in some cases, grass roots. Within those areas they are trying to develop branded content that makes sense in those places."

What makes branded content such a good means to target youth? "Teens have an available number of hours and an available lifestyle that allows for media consumption of marketing that you and I don't have the luxury of on a day-to-day basis. And that's what we've focused on with Mountain Dew. It's not about one way to reach teens. It's about overall consumption. If you looked at action-sports television ratings, readerships of the top publications like Transworld -- if you just strictly looked at those numbers from an ROI standpoint -- they aren't always the best things to invest in. But when you draw a circle around the core consumers -- 16- to 19-year-old males -- think of all the places this guy is consuming action sports: the publications, TV, online, video games. Some of the action-sports video games, including the whole Tony Hawk pro-skater series, they're not just some of the best-selling video games in this space, they are some of the best-selling video games period. ... Some of it is now being sold in big-box retailers. The pass-along rate for those videos is unbelievable. It's like for every one kid who buys a video, he shares it with eight friends who will watch it, on average, about 12 to 14 times. It's a part of youth culture that doesn't happen elsewhere in marketing."

How do you know when you've lost authenticity with youth and just started adding to the clutter? "It's hard to know what the precise gauge is. It's hard to know what is a little too much to be acceptable to a youth audience in terms of either branded content or an advertiser influence on content. It's not one of those cases where you can build content, keep loading it up with an advertiser's message until you go too far and then pull back the reins. There's not that opportunity in youth marketing. Once you've gone too far, you have alienated the youth consumer and they are not coming back. Not only are they not coming back, but they are going to utilize technology -- mainly online -- to aggressively and proactively tear you down."
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