Contestants, start your engines. The advertising world has something out there for you.
There's an H.J. Heinz Co. contest in which the best 30-second commercial submitted will pick up a $57,000 prize. Another challenge asking Mohawk Industries fans to produce new endings for fairy tale-inspired flooring ads is over but the Stok line of coffee enhancers just kicked off a national online competition asking participants to post dance videos all using the same "hyper jubilant" tune.
If you aren't the competitive, camera-wielding type, you still can join the party.
How about sending a text message so you can win more turkey on your Subway sub? Or coming out to see adoptable felines in a van sponsored by cat food maker Del Monte Foods Co.? Maybe you run regularly, fueled by ZonePerfect nutrition bars, in which case you could enrich your iPod collection with exclusive downloads from acoustic sessions with musicians such as Joan Osborne and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.
If marketers have done their jobs correctly, consumers who participate in any of these activities will feel involved, attached and -- here's the magic word -- engaged.
"Consumer engagement" is the term coined to describe what advertising and marketing agencies are striving to achieve so they can prove to clients they are not simply holding a bullhorn up to the crowd and shouting a message that will fall on unresponsive ears.
Engagement requires consumers to actually do something. Passively listening to a commercial doesn't leave a trail, no proof you actually got the message.
Few ad agencies can get away with simply presenting strategic plans for making the funniest or the most shocking 30-second spots during "Grey's Anatomy" or papering the country with print ads.
Busy lives, the Internet, cable TV, video games, DVDs, busy lives, cell phones that play games, TiVo, cell phones that surf the Internet and, oh yes, those very busy lives have made traditional advertising less effective.
"Brands used to be able to buy their 'friends,' " said Jason Bergeron, creative director at Downtown agency Ten United, with an ironic reference to the former hit TV show that drew millions of viewers.
Now, the theory goes, they have to win over buddies -- sometimes going to where they are. Frownie, the mean brownie dessert from Smith Brothers Advertising' client Kings Family Restaurants, has his own MySpace page. He has 425 friends.
Friends also need to have something in common. "If it's not relevant to your lifestyle, it's dead," said Dan Albert, media director for Station Square-based ad agency Marc USA.
Judges at Cannes last month gave top advertising prizes to an online commercial for Dove that consumers shared with friends and a Burger King campaign that included video games developed to play on Microsoft's Xbox 360 system that featured the chain's King character.
Consumers could relate to Dove's question about the definition of beauty as an ordinary woman is transformed by makeup, lighting and computer enhancement to billboard beauty. Other consumers liked playing the Burger King games enough to spend precious time doing so.
"If you need another example that we've already given the keys to the consumer, that's it," said Gordon Robertson, group creative director at Marc USA/Pittsburgh.
Getting down with the consumer means acting more like one, even at work.
At Ten United's Downtown office, the boardroom with the huge wood table was converted this spring to a lab with an Apple TV, computers linked to the Internet and all the latest video game systems -- an Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 3. Staff members are encouraged to play unless there's a client presentation going on in there.
Marc USA has distributed game systems, GPS devices and hot cell phones for some goofing around in its offices. Trying to make its own excitement, the agency has set up partnerships with Carnegie Mellon University to develop new tools. Last year one-third of its revenues came from nontraditional advertising work, and that number is expected to grow, said Michele Fabrizi, president and chief executive officer.
Technology has driven much of the shift in power to consumers. People can not only choose their entertainment vehicles but can connect to each other quickly if they like or dislike something. That Dove commercial wouldn't have been seen by so many people without a nudge by consumers who passed links along.
Technology also makes it easier for advertisers to identify and reach, say, the consumers who eat energy bars as part of professional body-building plans vs. those who eat nutrition bars as part of a self-help plan to live a more fulfilling life.
The second group was identified as the audience for ZonePerfect bars made by Ross Laboratories. So the staff at Ten United organized a music special held during the Sundance Film Festival last January in which artists performed acoustically under the company's sponsorship. Four nights were cut into a one-hour special for Women's Entertainment Network. Consumers who bought boxes of bars were given codes to download songs from a Web site called ZonePerfectTV.
Cell-phone technology made possible a new Subway promotion developed for a Cincinnati franchise group by Smith Brothers. The Subway restaurants had determined turkey was the most popular topping. In a "Free Bird" campaign that references the 1970s classic rock tune, customers who sent the right text message got extra turkey and a chance to win concert tickets and iTunes gift cards.
Contests are a recurring theme. As recipe contests dating to the 1950s and even earlier demonstrated (and reality TV show producers discovered), a good competition can be a lot of fun. Technology makes it easier to get more people involved -- within reason.
"If we all try to do contests, then we'll be missing the mark," said Michael Bollinger, director of client services at Strip District-based Smith Brothers.
But at least, the agencies argue, these new contests tend to be more interactive than the ones that sent consumers hunting for the right Pepsi bottle cap. The winner of the Heinz, Mohawk and Stok competitions organized by Smith Brothers, Marc and Ten United, respectively, will all bring fresh ideas to the conversation.
The world hasn't changed so much that engaging the consumer can't be done off-line.
Marc USA last year developed an action hero for client Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems that battled villains such as "Scorcher" and "Bone Chiller." In addition to television spots, the agency had action figures made for dealers to hand out to shoppers with children. Dealers lined up to get their photos taken with the actor playing Bryantman.
The campaign to generate buzz among 18- to 25-year-old guys who are potential users of caffeinated Stok, found at convenience stores near the coffee dispensers, included the rather old-fashioned technique of having attractive women hand out samples in bars.
Whether it's buying advertising space on an obscure Web site frequented by a niche audience or finding places that customers might turn up, the point is to engage the consumer at just the right moment. "It's being in places where receptivity of the message is the highest," said Steve Swanson, executive director of Ten United's Pittsburgh office.
For dog owners, that might be on the road. Pup-Peroni vending machines are being tested at several rest stops in California as part of Smith Brothers work for Del Monte. If the snacks sell there, more may be rolled out nationally. But it's all up to the consumers. And their dogs.Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette
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Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018.