April 20th, 2007

Gimme an Ad! Brands Lure Cheerleaders

By Brian Steinberg
The Wall Street Journal

Marketers Try to Rally Influential Teen Girls Behind New Products

When Katelyn Bertke, an 18-year-old cheerleader from Centerville High School in Dayton, Ohio, goes to cheerleading events, she expects to see the newest uniforms and the latest cheer routines. But increasingly she also gets to try out products from marketers such as Procter & Gamble Co.

At a recent camp at her high school, Ms. Bertke tried new scents from P&G’s Secret body spray. On another occasion, at a Florida championship, she could have had her hair done at a lounge sponsored by P&G’s Herbal Essences. Both were available as part of a deal struck between P&G and Varsity Spirit, a Memphis, Tenn., concern that organizes cheerleading camps and competitions.

Putting in an appearance on the cheerleading circuit is becoming mandatory for marketers hoping to connect with teens through word-of-mouth marketing. These marketers, including P&G and PepsiCo Inc., recognize cheerleaders can be among the most popular people in high school, able to influence opinions on deodorant, shampoos or other products. Ms. Bertke, for instance, says she has told her friends about products she’s seen at cheerleader camp.

“If there is a new scent that I really enjoy, I’ll share it with them and they will be ‘Oh my gosh, what is that?’ and I’ll be, ‘It’s Secret’s new jasmine scent’ or whatever it is,” she said in an interview.

Marketing to cheerleaders is “a unique way to get involved with an influential set of our consumers,” says Dave Knox, teen external relations manager for P&G Beauty. P&G estimates there are about 14 million cheerleaders in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 20.

Cheerleader marketing programs aren’t new. P&G has been showing up at events run by Varsity Spirit since 2004, but the consumer-products titan has ramped up its efforts lately. It recently signed a sponsorship pact allowing it to create multiple promotions at Varsity-organized events. Promotions include sending makeup artists affiliated with P&G’s CoverGirl line of cosmetics to offer makeup tips.

Varsity, which estimates it trained more than 350,000 cheerleaders last year in both high school and college camps, has made an effort to lure marketers in recent years. It has had the most success with companies whose products might be of particular interest to female teens. PepsiCo, for instance, signed a sponsorship pact with Varsity in 2004 to promote its Propel water. The soda giant has held workshops at cheerleader events to teach teens about nutrition and the value of drinking water, says Jeff Urban, senior vice president of sports marketing for Propel and Gatorade.

Since striking the sponsorship pact, Pepsi estimates Propel has been able to reach about 500,000 cheerleaders and dancers. Because the workshops offer education for athletes, says Mr. Urban, the teens find it useful and “they lose some of that wall they put up” against traditional marketing.

Other cheerleader-event companies are also seeing growing interest from marketers. At Jamz Cheerleading & Dance in Modesto, Calif., President Julie Grogan says she has noticed “a lot more corporate sponsors are wanting in particular to advertise to cheerleaders.” Rather than exchange money, advertisers sponsor her events and get to pass out samples of their products, such as nutrition bars, she says. At Great Lakes Cheer Company, in Maryville, Mich., co-owner Heather Mills says marketers hand out coupons to audiences. Advertisers don’t pay sponsorship fees, but Great Lakes executives hope they will be able to negotiate such arrangements in the future.

Word-of-mouth marketing is seen as a particularly useful way to reach teen consumers. Savvy about new ways to get information and entertainment that allow them to avoid advertising, teens aren’t eager to hear the standard ad pitch. At the same time, when young people embrace a specific product or name brand, they do so intensely and spread the word among their friends.

Still, ad executives say advertisers need to be careful not to cross the line and be too aggressive when cheerleaders gather. “High school has become a big bull’s-eye for a lot of marketers,” says Matt Pensinger, a vice president at Relay, a Publicis Groupe sports-marketing company.

Ms. Bertke says she doesn’t mind marketers at events as long as they aren’t trying to snare her attention when “we are stressed out and we are going to get to warm up.” Indeed, she appreciates the chance to get a first look at what’s headed for supermarket shelves. “We always like to know what the new products are,” she says.

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