The energy drink market is on a high. Turbo charged by top-selling brands like Monster Red Bull and Rockstar the highly-caffeinated offshoots of the soft drink category have not only grown in popularity over the past decade to the tune of $6.5 billion in annual sales they continue to fly off the shelves while other soda and juice drink sales remain flat.
Helping to drive the public’s near insatiable thirst for energy drinks is a decade of grassroots marketing campaigns that not only raised the profile of the brands behind them but also defined a generation of athletes sports properties and fans who latched on to their extreme appeal. Number two brand (based on volume per Beverage Digest) Red Bull made its name from the ground up with the counterculture set by getting behind daredevil aerial stunt shows and street-level guerrilla sampling events held just outside the boundaries of sanctioned music and sports properties. The brands holding the number one and three positions in the market Monster and Rockstar sample their liquid lightening via music festivals and auto sports circuits with high-flying BMX and skateboarding demos female brand ambassadors in short skirts and hard-core heavy metal soundtracks blasting on-site. The energy drink category’s biggest target audience if it isn’t obvious is men ages 18 to 25.
With nearly 150 different energy drink brands on the market today consumers chasing a quick buzz have more options than ever. But one AMP Energy Drink a Mountain Dew hybrid created by parent Pepsi in 2001 is making a major play for maximum mindshare this year using a diverse mix of targeted product seeding strategies influencer sampling events and localized grassroots campaigns in 26 markets across the country. Called “What’s Next ” the campaign is shaking up the 10-year-old energy drink consumer stereotype by pinpointing influential tastemakers like artists djs bloggers up-and-coming musicians and fashion trendsetters and then engaging them with the product in ways that are subtle smart and relevant to their forward-thinking lifestyles.
“The way we partner with influencers is very authentic to who they are and what they’re all about ” says Lauren Hobart vp-marketing at AMP Energy. “It’s not about us beating our chest and saying ‘we’re cool you need to taste us.’ It’s about trying to infiltrate their lives and get into what they’re passionate about so that it happens organically. You can’t make cool happen.”
But cool… is happening. This summer Hobart’s team kicked off the brand’s biggest marketing push of the year—a massive five-million-can summer sampling blitz led by Los Angeles-based PGW Experience Marketing. Crack open an icy AMP Energy and savor the caffeinated goodness won’t you? And meet the next generation of energy drink consumers as they discover one of the industry’s originals sip by cool and calculated sip.
The recipe for success
Who can forget the Pepsi Challenge? The iconic taste test that invited consumers to take a sip and pick their favorite soda from unmarked cups of Coke and Pepsi first hit malls and then TV airwaves in 1975. Ever since one-on-one product sampling has been central to Pepsi’s corporate DNA. Now with this year’s AMP campaign and similar grassroots initiatives for other Pepsi brands it’s making a comeback—and taking on a bigger piece of the soda giant’s marketing mix.
“We can’t rely on the 30-second spot to sell our message ” says Hobart. “You’ve got to get out and engage consumers in a two-way dialogue. You’re seeing throughout Pepsi and other companies more emphasis placed on this type of activity.”
With 143 milligrams of caffeine in a 16-ounce can (that’s nearly three times the caffeine in a 12-ounce Pepsi) plus a mix of B-vitamins taurine ginseng and guarana AMP much like its competitors promises a serious boost of energy to those who drink it. Since its launch it has risen up the ranks to become one of the top drinks in the category by volume recently jumping from sixth to fourth place and earning seven percent of the market in 2008 according to Beverage Digest. The brand has expanded its line to include 10 flavors available in two sizes. But with Monster Red Bull and Rockstar collectively keeping a tight grip on nearly 75 percent of market share and with brand recognition running low in the lucrative West Coast metros AMP needed to well amp it up.
Redefining the Consumer
AMP Energy’s current portfolio includes eclectic counterculture events like its sponsorship of the USA Rock Paper Scissors Championships as well as a more traditional sports assets like its sponsorship of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. The brand also runs a year-round college campus rep program called AMP Energy Nation. But the new What’s Next influencer program does what no brand in the energy space has done in the past—take a different approach to the energy drink consumer.
In its early days the energy drink category was all about selling excess. Drink a can of the neon yellow elixir and you could jump the Grand Canyon on a dirt bike (or so the marketing messages implied). AMP’s What’s Next campaign still talks to the guys who are into action sports and extreme stunts but recognizes that a decade later the demographic has evolved. Today the college kid who is into skateboarding also listens to emerging musicians and djs on his MP3 player buys custom sneakers from chic boutiques searches out local art openings with his friends sports the latest high-tech gadgets and stays connected using 10 different kinds of social media. Drinking AMP isn’t about chugging it down to unleash the physical beast for this kid. It’s about slipping some liquid inspiration into a lifestyle that revolves around finding the newest and coolest bands artists people places and things. “They don’t care about what happened yesterday they care about what’s about to happen ” says Russ Jones ceo at PGW.
What’s Next and the campaign’s overarching “Moment Before the Moment” theme ties back to the brand’s TV ad campaign and capitalizes on the sense of anticipation that unites today’s young male trendsetters which Jones refer to as Consumer 2.0.
“Clearly competitors in the energy category have positioned their brand in a way that attempts to appeal to consumers in a hyper-masculine sort of way ” says Lance Bloomberg senior marketing manager at AMP Energy. “There is a consistent positioning that we see in the marketplace with these competitors. What we’ve realized—and this is part of our broad communications platform—is the most exciting type of energy for these consumers is the energy around the thrill of anticipation. It’s anticipating what’s next.”
The Power of Influence
Leading Consumer 2.0’s quest for cool is a select group of 250 socially networked super-consumers chosen for their ability to influence the local masses. Full-time local market managers recruited by AMP in each of the campaign’s 26 markets will select 10 people over the course of the campaign—club promoters djs artists—who they think represent What’s Next in each market. Those selected are sent brand kits filled with AMP gear product and promotional tools. The influencers are asked to submit ideas on an ongoing basis to the AMP brand team for local event and sponsorship opportunities and leverage their own social networks to spread the word blog about their activity and submit content to the AMP website to show how they “AMP up” in their part of the country. The nationwide network of brand ambassadors gives AMP relevance and buy-in at a local level they couldn’t achieve otherwise.
“It’s really about in a very authentic way immersing ourselves in their culture ” says Bloomberg. “With the Internet microblogging and hypersocialization if we can reach one influential person with a huge social network or fan base we hope that will help us spread the world by allowing these people to evangelize the brand on our behalf.”
Finding the right mix of influencers is critically important to the campaign’s success. Many marketers rely on volume indicators like number of friends on Facebook or blog activity when creating their influencer pools. AMP does too but puts more emphasis on the individual’s cultural currency as well as how their passions and personality align with the product. “It’s important that these key influencers not only be influential but also be a strong fit for the brand in helping us communicate the forward-looking component to the program ” Bloomberg says.
AMP leaned on PGW’s expertise (the shop’s mantra is “unlock the cool”) and network of local market experts to get the right peeps on board. “If you put your resources with the wrong person it’s just like sponsoring the wrong event; it’s like putting your ad in the wrong magazine ” says Jones. “You might be telling a cool story but you’re not telling it to the right people.”
The same stringent selection process is applied to AMP’s portfolio of events and activation platforms. The tagline What’s Next serves as the benchmark the team uses to hone in on the right celebrities events boutiques bloggers and athletes that its Consumer 2.0 would not only identify with but aspire to be or be part of. “The starting point in everything is What’s Next in people places and things ” Jones says.
In the people category for example the brand selected “sneaker freak” Eddie Cruz to appear in a celebrity influencer video profile series that runs on its website and on video screens at sampling stops and events. Cruz is a boutique owner and blogger with a massive following who represents to AMP’s target audience What’s Next in sneaker culture. In the video segments Cruz and other influencers describe how they AMP up for What’s Next and what their Moment Before the Moment looks like. Others featured in the series include artist Tofer Chin mc Spank Rock snowboarder Kevin Pearce and musician Trouble Andrew. If you don’t know who any of these guys are that’s probably a good thing. “We chose them because they’re not last year. They’re not played out ” says PGW coo Ryan Rocca. “They’re guys who are about to be.”
Getting an approving nod from the hipster crowd is a huge win of course but getting cans in hands is the name of the game. Like the new and improved Consumer 2.0 sampling has changed too. It used to be about handing out trial-sized products on a busy street corner. Now it’s about being as targeted as possible in where and how you sample. Influencer-driven events provide AMP the best shot at getting approval but also getting its energy drink sampled in the right context by an audience increasingly known for its ADD qualities.
“This is an opportunity for us to affect consumers in a way that’s going to provide an emotional connection and allow us to be where they are as opposed to asking them to come to us ” says Bloomberg.
And just because it’s hip and edgy doesn’t mean the influencer program ostracizes the average Joes who aren’t quite on the cusp of coolness. “We haven’t eliminated the basic line of communication: cute friendly girl free cool stuff and anyone can participate ” says Jones. “We just presented it in a way that is a hell of a lot cooler and doesn’t make the people that are cool think ‘this is cheesy I can’t support this.’ Once the cool kids think it’s stupid it’s not long before everyone else thinks it’s stupid.”
AMPing Up the Outreach
The heart of the What’s Next experience platform is an ambitious five-million-can sampling effort that kicked off in April and spans 26 markets. Full-time market managers in each of the metros keep tabs on the 10 influencers in their charge. They also keep the flow of custom-designed 12-ounce cans rolling out to local events. In a down economy with marketing budgets under fire AMP is going on the offense with relentless engagement: There is daily sampling activity six days a week in at least 19 of the markets.
Samples are distributed via a fleet of pimped out Ford Flex custom vehicles that open up in back to reveal a built-in cooler two flat screen TVs (running event and celebrity influencer footage) and a digital dj station. Street teams branch out using custom-fabricated metal cooler wagons and wet sampling bars. The teams roam the city wearing co-branded American Apparel gear and engage consumers as they are on the way to an event or to an after-party by asking “Hey are you ready for what’s next?”
One mobile marketing unit in each city will work the streets through October and will visit lifestyle locations and events like beaches and parks nightclubs shopping centers fashion and art events BMX and skateboarding events plus business and retail locations.
In keeping with its What’s Next mantra AMP in April activated at alternative music festival Coachella’s Music Loves Fashion VIP event. The brand also eschewed traditional Fashion Week activations in favor of the MAGIC and Agenda fashion trade shows where emerging talent (read: what’s next not what was) showcase their work. The brand also works toward that five-million-can goal by hitting up mainstream national consumer events like festivals fairs outdoor concerts and large-scale national destinations like Taste of Chicago and the US Open of Snowboarding.
At these events “cool” comes to life. Under a branded dome consumers grab a swig of AMP participate in a live t-shirt silk-screening with fashion-forward artist team HIT + RUN and take their chances at a roulette wheel challenge. In the What’s Next in “things” area AMP leverages several collaborations with popular brands to build further equity with the target. AMP-branded SkullCandy headphones G-Shock watches Flip video cameras New Era hats and other products are offered as prize incentives and as premiums for VIP events. “Don’t do Beefy-T’s wrist bands and hats they’re going to throw away. Step it up ” says Jones. “We stayed with the basic recipe and building blocks [of giveaways] but did it in a cooler way and made it feel a lot more organic to what these kids really want.”
AMP is activating at more than 50 VIP events this summer as well with branded step and repeat backdrops cocktail bars and special drink menus that feature Belvedere vodka. Rounding out the on-the-ground 26-market sampling mission are weekly record release parties and art shows at Venice CA club AK1511 as well as tour sponsorships of indie acts like Trouble Andrew Cirque Berserk and several college bands. AMP uses the events as a platform for web content creation.
One of the most unique components of the What’s Next program is so cool it’s downright cold. In each market AMP offers streetwear shops sneaker boutiques and action sports retail outlets branded refrigerators filled with free product. Retailers are invited to create a custom design for the exterior of the fridge. (The AMP symbol is subtly etched into the glass door preventing it from being removed.) Through the boutique fridge-seeding program shoppers get complimentary product retailers get excited about showcasing their designs and AMP gets access to high-traffic locations like Burton flagship stores in L.A. and New York plus target-rich snowboard and sneaker shops. Market managers stop by weekly to replenish the supply. As an added bonus many of the boutique owners are active bloggers who have featured snapshots of their fridge designs on their blogs. Sneaker shop owner and AMP celebrity influencer Cruz posted a shot of his fridge with one of his shoes at a blog called hypebeast.com and got a respectable 200 000 hits.
“We’re asking them to make it their own ” says Bloomberg. “We’re asking them to put their own imprint on the refrigerator and that translates into them interacting with our brand in a way that allows them to make the brand their own.”
The campaign further goes from “grass to mass” by driving consumers from sampling events to ampenergy.com where they can check out celebrity profile videos a real-time Twitter feed and as the program progresses dispatches and videos from local influencer events. Many brands try to restrict what’s on their event program microsites to just brand-sanctioned content. AMP recognizes that its core customers are more interested in their own thoughts videos and photos so its site serves as a landing page for content feeds from sites like YouTube Flickr and Twitter. “To showcase their local efforts AMP walked away from the idea of having to own everything and drive people to the site and went to a model that said ‘let’s be everywhere consumers are and culminate all that back to one spot ’” says Jones.
The strategy makes AMP’s content more searchable on a wider variety of websites and gives the community a more organic connection with the target consumer.
“Everything we’re doing around the program is in the hope that it will create content for our website to air on the flat-screen TVs that are mounted on vehicles out there sampling product or even just to be passed around on the YouTubes of the world ” Bloomberg says. “That’s absolutely an objective.”
The Bottom Line
Back in the day Slurpees were the main draw at your local 7-Eleven store. Today convenience and gas stores are flooded with energy drinks and the kids who slurp them down. With AMP Energy’s influencer efforts in full swing the brand tackled the first part of the summer sales strategy by creating desire and relevance for the product. Part two is reengaging convenience and retail stores and inspiring them to carry and order more of the product.
The two tactics are not disconnected. As store managers start to see influencer activities around town and brand teams supporting local accounts at point-of-purchase sampling events their interest in the product grows. AMP’s in-market teams also do ride alongs with the local sales force during weeklong blitzes sending out sampling teams point-of-sale kits and premiums to local accounts. The campaign connects further by having a strong on-the-ground presence at convenience and gas stores retail grand openings grocery stores and parking lots.
“As you go down to market level we have bottler relationships in each of those markets and we have particular retailer objectives around local events in those markets so we’ll work hand in hand with our bottlers and field sales teams to identify some of their local objectives and then route [accordingly] ” says Bloomberg.
Day-to-day activity is tracked and reported through PGW’s web-based Basecamp portal which market managers brand managers and program managers all have access to. At any time team members can get real-time feedback on events that have already occurred and can access some of the key statistics around the number of samples or impressions made at each of those events. Market teams upload photos so remote managers at AMP headquarters can quickly get a feel for what the event looked like and how it fit into broad national objectives.
It’s easy for challenger brands like AMP to go unnoticed. Especially when they play in the same spaces as their rivals. But by reassessing what it knows about its target energy drink consumer AMP Energy is effectively creating a new category within an existing category. This strategy combined with the brand’s tactical on-the-ground outreach and retail support takes advantage of the industry’s short selling season in ways its competitors are not. And that may just be the start of a recession success story in the making.
So far the signs of success and adoption are strong. Sneaker and streetwear stores are calling and asking AMP to be a part of their product launches. Requests for mini-fridges are coming in to Pepsi headquarters from around the country. Custom-made t-shirts are being worn at the events where they’re created. Influential blogs are on fire with AMP chatter. Event requests coming in from bottler reps have doubled since the campaign started. And in some markets it’s been reported that consumers are chasing down the mobile vehicles just for a can of AMP Energy. Now that’s some serious buzz. em