EM editors Rachel Kirkpatrick and Kenneth Briodagh kissed the frigid Northeast goodbye and embedded themselves for a few days of sun, surf and sponsored activations at two of the country’s top spring break destinations. Despite being a little overdressed and, let’s face it, a lot over age, the duo hit the scenes like a couple of college kids fresh off midterms. What follows are their full reports on the best marketing programs on the beach. And after you finish reading, don’t forget to check out the videos on our YouTube Channel.
Panama City Beach, FL: Wet And Pretty Wild
My parents never liked the idea of a place like Panama City Beach, FL, for spring break when I was in college. Who would have thought years later I’d be right smack in the middle of it as a journalist covering the action? Most of what adults think happens on spring break, does happen: the endless partying, endless drinking, bikini contests and bumping and grinding. But the thing is, this popular domestic destination that attracts more than 100,000 college kids over a four-week period in March has a rhythm and a level of controlled chaos to it that just works.
Spring break in this panhandle Gulf of Mexico beach city is not a free-for-all. It is a well-oiled marketing machine backed by resorts and clubs, powerhouse promotions and sponsorships (and triple-backed by law enforcement). Brands sponsor or activate around many aspects of spring break, from the room keys to sampling to contests and concerts, to actual beach activations.
The level of engagement doesn’t go too deep because there are limitations—the maturity of these young consumers, their “goals” on a given day, the sand, the activation footprints. But the exposure is unlimited. Most students are on a budget and they are more than willing to register to take part in a photo activation for free stuff. They also want to document their trip. We saw a lot of that, and it worked well.
We set out on a hunt for brand engagement and what we found didn’t surprise us too much in terms of brand presence or strategy. It actually kind of made us think: Are brands afraid of spring break? Put this many drunk, young people into one city for one week and you’re bound to have an accident of some kind. There are. They make the news. They tend to involve balconies. That’s the unfortunate side of things. But for the most part, we found that day and night venues were well-staffed and under control. Guilt by association really doesn’t apply here.
Early one afternoon on the beach I suddenly found myself surrounded by shirtless young people. There seemed no end in sight. Yet, as I worked my way out of the crowd, all I heard were polite “Excuse me’s.” No raucous confrontations. It’s certainly not for everybody, but from my standpoint, it wasn’t so bad. It was pretty entertaining.
“What I love most about it is that they’re just so happy,” says David Demarest of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If the weather is bad, if the water is rough, if the water is cold they’re still happy. They’re just pleased to be here, pleased to be off school and they really hold themselves responsible for their own happiness.”
So, brands: fear not. There is a method to this madness and there are seasoned professionals ready to be your guide. (Hint, hint: It would be cool to see some surprises next year.) Now, as far as whether I will allow my child to attend spring break, if he or she will even bother to ask my permission… no comment.
The majority of activations we saw with dedicated footprints took place between four huge beach clubs and resorts, three of which are located on a quarter-mile stretch of beach. Brands often visit a spot like PCB for a week, leave to activate at another spring break locale, like South Padre Island, for a week, and then return.
The Axe brand, which offers men a range of hygiene products, had a pretty creative activation space on the beach to promote its Axe Face line of products and corresponding Axe Facescore “Upgrade Your Face” promotional campaign. The raised room on the beach at Spinnaker Beach Club had four walls and a roof. Consumers could walk in and wash up using the products at one of two sinks with mirrors. Afterward, they were guided around back to a photo station where they could pose for four fun photos that were printed out on the spot as a collage. The photos were then scanned and uploaded to the Axe Facescore Tumblr page, where consumers can vote for the best faces and upload their own photos to be scored. The walls of the space included built-in shelving lined with the products as well as the #axefacescore hashtag and campaign branding. Agencies: Sub Rosa, New York City; Youth Marketing Connection, Washington, D.C.; Staffing: Spinnaker Beach Promotions.
The Trojan Pure Ecstasy footprint was busy throughout each day on the beach outside Club La Vela and offered music from a dj on a small stage as well as several experiences. Surrounded by fencing, the space had lounge chairs and futons under the shade of cabanas. A step and repeat photo activation required spring breakers to have a temporary branded tattoo applied before taking part in the shoot that would automatically send the image to their phones and email. After the shoot they could test their sun-kissed brains at a trivia spin wheel where prizes included branded premiums like t-shirts and sunglasses. One prize included a VIP night at the club. Spring breakers could also enter a Facebook sweepstakes where each week a lucky winner received a VIP package with parasail rides and VIP passes to Club La Vela, a reserved VIP cabana and branded swag. In addition, special activities happened right in front of the entrance each day, such as tug of war and a slip and slide. Agency: The Passion Group, Asbury Park, NJ.
Bright and fun with cheerful brand ambassadors, göt2be’s activation drew in young female and male consumers each day on the beach at Spinnaker Beach Club. The activation space featured a circus-style tent emblazoned with the female hair care product brand’s colors: pink and black. There was a giant pink boom box and a step and repeat photo activation. Consumers could participate in a social media-incentivized giveaway by posing for a photo shoot with props, and by either liking the product page or uploading the photo to their social media, they could take home a sling bag with a full-size canister of the brand’s 2 Sexy hair spray product, as well as branded Koozies and sunglasses. Agency: SandBox, Tempe, AZ.
This activation had a great footprint with lounge chairs and a couple of hammocks to set the “mellow mood” at the Holiday Inn Resort, as well as a thatched bar top serving full-size samples of the product. Spring breakers could sign into social media and follow or Like the beverage brand on Facebook. In doing so they received branded premiums such as tank tops, t-shirts, bandanas, sunglasses, bracelets and temporary tattoos. Nearby was a giant Twister-style board game with contests throughout the day for prize giveaways like Marley’s branded headphones. The brand also fed spring breakers, offering up free jerk chicken sliders for lunch every Sunday and Wednesday. A sweepstakes winner won a suite for the week at the Holiday Inn Resort complete with a branded door and a room stocked with product and swag. Agency: The Passion Group, Asbury Park, NJ.
Sour Punch’s activation offered spring breakers a sweet ride at Spinnaker Beach Club. The footprint included a “Bucking Beast of the Sour Seas” mechanical shark ride on the beach. Brand ambassadors handed out free candy and swag while consumers took part in a step and repeat photo shoot with free printouts. Leading up to spring break the brand had hosted a college campus dj competition and the winning dj received a trip to spring break with three friends and the opportunity to perform at the beach club’s Mega Beach Party beach stage and inside the club at night. Agency: Spinnaker Beach Promotions, Panama City Beach, FL.
This mixed martial arts tournament brand that activated at Club La Vela challenged spring breakers to see who was “tough enough” at spring break. The activation featured physical fitness elements such as stations to do inverted push-ups, sit-ups, plyometric box jumps and a 24-foot rope climb. Every other day a competition took place where female spring breakers could win the title of World Series Fighting Ring Girl of Spring Break. (What an honor.) Agency: The Passion Group, Asbury Park, NJ.
Beverage brands of every stripe flocked to PCB to take advantage of the thirsty masses. We’ve already mentioned Marley’s Mellow Mood, the antithesis of the energy drink, but other product promos included Life Support, which, appropriately, is supposed to rid consumers of their nasty hangover symptoms. The brand passed out samples at The Summit resort.
As did Bud Light with its new Straw-Ber-Rita beverage. As did the malt beverage brand Joose at Sharky’s Beach Club. As did Monster Energy and Coca-Cola’s Vitamin Water at Spinnaker Beach Club, the club’s major sponsor. As did Red Bull at the Holiday Inn Resort. You get the idea. What follows are the beverage brands that proved to have the most engaging sampling strategies.
Mountain Dew Kickstart
Oh yes, the brand (which is on tour) was everywhere including on the beach at The Summit with free cans and at clubs like Sharky’s Beach Club handing out small cups of the beverage. But what caught our attention was the awesome vehicle the brand ambassadors were riding around in. It looked like a retrofitted mid-size moving truck complete with bumping speakers, a trio of flat screens positioned downward toward the street and three built-in coolers from which brand ambassadors passed out free cans. Agency: Motive, Denver; Build: EPS-Doublet, Denver.
Malibu Rum took over the cabana bar at The Summit resort with branded flags and brand ambassadors who conducted sampling. The brand, however, had a really cool giveaway strategy for the promotion of its new mixed-drink canned products. Consumers were invited to take summer-ish photos and post them to Instagram with hashtags #malibucans and #yourstate as well as their state with a hashtag in front of it. The consumers who got the most “likes” were entered to win a variety of high-value prizes, which included branded beach chairs, skateboards and surfboards.
The brand ambassadors passed out campaign cards that included two branded bracelets—one for you and one for a friend. It was a really easy way to duplicate their efforts instantly. Apparently, it’s a big trend among spring breakers to collect campaign and club-related bracelets and they wear them for weeks on end after their trip is over. Agencies: Collegiate Marketing Group, Toronto; Twenty Four 7, Portland, OR.
Four Loko made appearances in a few spots in PCB but it specifically did a great nighttime promotion at Spinnaker Beach Club, which kind of stood out for us since most of the sampling we came across was quite bland. The brand had a step and repeat photo activation, where brand ambassadors took pictures on iPads and, using a custom app, emailed the pictures to spring breakers instantly. The brand also offered premium giveaways and free product sampling. Agency: Spinnaker Beach Promotions, Panama City Beach, FL.
We heard Warner Bros. plugged “The Hangover Part III” by handing out branded water bottles to spring breakers from a “hydration station,” and that Walt Disney Pictures’ “Monster’s University” played brand host to beer pong tournaments on Fridays at a spring break hotspot. What follows are two more examples of the tinseltown-inspired action, both handled by Brite Promotions, Cranbury, NJ, and activated at Spinnaker Beach Club.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures’ “Iron Man 3”
This activation was pretty simple… yet effective. Spring breakers could take a break from the sun under a thatched-roof covered space and watch the trailer of the movie on a flat-screen TV while waiting for their device to charge at a nearby charging station. Brand ambassadors were applying temporary tattoos, too.
Universal Pictures’ “Fast and Furious 6”
Spring breakers could cool off and race one another on a giant, inflated dual water slide at Spinnaker Beach Club. The activation included a tablet-based photo shoot so these young consumers could share the wet-and-wild fun across their social media networks.
South Padre Island, Texas: Ready For Action
It’s almost infamous for its debauchery. Almost no single event can evoke such clear images of young folks having a great time, showing off, (sometimes) drinking too much and (always) making their parents nervous. Yup, we’re talking spring break. For many, it’s the first time they’ve gone away without mom or dad to chaperone. For all, it’s a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime chance to live like a superstar: hanging on the beach, pounding some beers and rocking the clubs with their best friends.
There are a lot of places to go, but South Padre Island, just minutes from Mexico on the Texas Caribbean coast, is one of the best. It’s the home of Texas Week, when the students of the state’s universities come out to literally fly the flag for their one-day alma maters. And it’s also the home of Coca-Cola Beach, or “Coke Beach” for short.
- GALLERY: Scenes From Spring Break, PCB
Located adjacent to the Isla Grand Beach Resort, the brand takes over a few thousand square feet of sand and invites anyone who’s old enough to party, (but young enough not to know better), to visit for three weeks in March. Coca-Cola is happy to share the sandbox with other brands like the National Guard, BIC, Australian Gold sunscreen, Ford and Trojan condoms, but the big red can is the master of ceremonies and everyone knows it. Don’t believe me? Find another brand on the beach. No, really. Go ahead… I’ll wait.
They’re not there. SPI is several miles long, all lined on both sides with perfect white sand, and not one brand grabbed a piece. I wonder why? Intimidated, maybe? Afraid Coke’s long-standing reputation for awesomeness will over shadow you? Not convinced the college-kid demographic is the right one to go after? Worried about spring break itself? I say the real question is: why would any brand miss out on this? It’s sad, really. These young folks are dying to get in line for a solid activation. They want to be entertained and to get free swag. They are even willing to drop some cash for the right experience, and almost no brand is there to help.
Well, congratulations to you that did show up. You got your money’s worth along with that killer tan.
It’s called Coca-Cola Beach, for crying out loud. The hundreds of spring breakers that stayed at ground zero at the Isla got loaded with swag when they checked in: Koozies, t-shirts, visors and, natch, all the Coke and Dasani (and Dasani Drops) they could want. The rooms were palatial, beautiful and with a gorgeous view, but the action was outside. This year, Coke was there for three weeks, and every day was a new party out on Coke Beach. The stage went live at 11 a.m. for the early risers, and didn’t stop rockin’ tunes (thanks to some killer dj-ing and emceeing, and the occasional celebrity drop-in performance) until 5 p.m. Every day was different, though each week was largely programmed the same way. The tempo would start slow in the morning, building to full-on party by about one o’clock. The brand would periodically pull a group of men or women on stage for a dance-off or just to shake what their mammas gave ‘em. Winners got t-shirts and product. So did the other competitors, so everyone left happy. There were sampling stands all over the beach, water mostly. Gotta keep those kids hydrated.
And speaking of water, every Wednesday was Dasani day, when the Twitter hashtag was #flavorfy, the branding and costumes were changed, and the awesome was kicked up a notch thanks to the Dasani Drops skydiving team. At about 1 p.m., the emcee started calling everyone up to the stage to get one of four colored wristbands. He told them each color corresponded to a team, but didn’t mention what the game was. After most of them had a band on (there were about 300 of each color), he had them gather around the 20-foot-wide Dasani-branded target that had appeared in the sand. Then he told them that in a few minutes a plane would appear and four men would leap out. Each of those men were representing one of the flavors of Dasani Drops (Coke’s new product that adds flavor drops to water), and each corresponded with one of the colored wristbands. They had to root for their man, because whichever team’s skydiver dropped closest to the bulls-eye would win them all special Dasani Drops t-shirts. They went nuts. Hell, I went nuts. It was cool.
And this went on all day, all week, for three weeks. I know you’ve been doing this for like 20 years, Coke, but well done anyway. Agency: CPC Intersect, Eagan, MN.
BIC knows the rules. Provide some sweet games, a novelty that tracks back to the brand and enough swag to choke a shark and the kids will love you. So that’s what they did with the BIC Shave Experience. Taking over one side of Coke Beach with a fenced-in brand experience, BIC had its best brand ambassadors on hand to call folks over to play a game much like Hungry Hungry Hippos, but with oversized razorless razors. Or maybe they’d like to get in on a little sexy Twister (playing is better than watching, but watching’s pretty good, too). All that was fun, but the real draw was on the stage. Up there, BIC had three licensed cosmetologists offering shaves (using BIC razors, of course) to any and all comers. The guy did legs for the girls and the two ladies did faces, heads, chests and in at least two cases I saw, legs, for the men. They were even willing to put a design into some chest hair, if the dude was willing and had the follicles to make it work. The line was long, but no one cared thanks to the high-energy emcee and, of course the sexy twister. Did I mention the sexy twister? Agency: Brand Connections, New York City.
This crowd is the sweet spot for the Guard. They get a ton of new recruits out of college, and there are few better ways to show how much fun the Guard can be then to bust out a three-on-three basketball tourney at spring break. So they did. The grid filled fast with teams, and they played all day for chances at Guard-branded swag, including t-shirts, Koozies, basketballs and more. It’s sometimes the simple ones that make the biggest splash, and judging by the crowds, this is case study number one for how that works. Agency: Red Peg Marketing, Alexandria, VA .
The sunscreen brand Australian Gold was back on South Padre for the second year, and doing some sampling, handing out shirts and pushing folks to “like” the brand’s Facebook page. That’s it.
Trojan Brand Condoms was the only brand I found outside of Coke Beach. They rolled up to Clayton’s Beach Bar with a trivia wheel game to give students a chance to win some premiums. They also gave away about a billion samples of the new “Pure Ecstasy” condoms.
With a big fat goose egg for interactivity, fun or creativity, we have Ford. It was a tent with three or four bored-looking people doing a raw data collect. On paper. Sure, there was some kind of sweepstakes involved, and there might have been t-shirts, but I was so bored by the whole thing, I didn’t notice. And neither did the spring breakers. They didn’t even have a car out there, for crying out loud. At least they showed up. Lame, Ford. Just not as lame as the brands who didn’t come at all.