The Magic Question: What’s as Important as Baseball?

February 02, 2017


First, a case study from Dr. Karl Hellman (Co-founder, Resultrek) and then an analysis by Frank Grillo (CMO, Harte Hanks).

Case study from Dr. Karl Hellman

In our 3-second attention span world, social media marketing often grabs attention with dramatic discounts: 30% off or more. But discounts erode profits and detract from brand equity: “Thirty percent off? What’s wrong with this product?”

A better way to grab attention is to borrow interest from a topic your target is already passionate about. When I need to find a way to grab attention fast, I ask myself, “What does the target customer care about as much as kids care about baseball?” Here is why.

P&G had a small regional soft drink called Sundrop which was facing a dire situation: No promotion funding in the face of low market share and intense direct competition (Mountain Dew) in a crowded category—think Coke and Pepsi. This lemon-lime flavored soda was sold only in the Southeast and had come to P&G in the 1980s as part of the acquisition of Orange Crush. As a regional product with no plans for rollout, Sundrop had a miniscule advertising budget. The brand manager’s challenge was to build share and volume for this tiny brand with no budget. She decided to focus on one geographic area where Sundrop had good distribution: rural North Carolina.

Sundrop’s major product characteristics were its sweet flavor and caffeine fortification. Early research showed that the product had particular appeal for 10 to 14 year old kids. With this in mind, the P&G team asked themselves what was really important in the lives of youths in these geographic areas? The answer they came up with was Little League baseball.

The core of the attention grabbing, promotional program the product management team developed was simple. Kids (and their parents) would collect Sundrop bottle caps and exchange them for Louisville Slugger baseball equipment – bats, mitts, gloves and balls. To stretch the Sundrop budget further, the brand manager persuaded Louisville Slugger to support a cross-tie promotion. The baseball company would donate the equipment, and in turn get invaluable (free to them) advertising and goodwill.

Next, the brand manager approached the local Little Leagues and convinced them to break their non-commercial tradition and endorse the cross-promotional program. The Little Leagues mailed letters to all their teams in the Sundrop territory describing the program and encouraging parents and kids to participate.

The program was successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Whole communities participated in order to equip their local teams. As the success mounted, Louisville Slugger asked for financial assistance in fulfilling orders. Sundrop was delighted to respond; they had tripled their market share and sold thousands of gallons of soda as a result of the promotion. At that point, they could justify additional promotional expenses.

When you’re looking at a particularly difficult challenge of breaking through information clutter and overload, think about why those kids in little towns and farms all across North Carolina chose Sundrop over Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola or Pepsi. You can invoke this attention-grabbing rule: Build promotions that support values customers care about as strongly as kids care about baseball.

Analysis by Frank Grillo

The Sundrop case illustrates beautiful integration of multiple aspects of effective promotion. Each component is closely linked, like a Jenga tower where every block seems stuck to the others. It is hard to imagine this promotional home run without Louisville Slugger as the partner, support from the regional Little League organization, and so on.

The case highlights the value of testing: start small, try something new, and expand from there if successful. Tests can be very low cost, which makes them an ideal tool, especially when budgets are tight. They can help “money appear out of nowhere” because smart money tends to gravitate toward high-return marketing programs.

As is so often the case, market segmentation and persona definition play a central role in the development of effective marketing programs. But the unique Sundrop situation forced the brand manager to apply them in innovative ways.

1. Market Segmentation

Market segmentation is the process of dividing a market into smaller pieces. This helps marketers tailor their programs for greater impact. Today we like to talk about “markets of one” but this can offset program effectiveness.

Using a Strategic Game Board, we can imagine that Sundrop could justifiably anticipate a high ability to influence a small regional market. These markets are often ignored by the larger brands. Because of low market share, however, the best Sundrop could hope for was a moderate degree of success. When its market share tripled, everyone was surprised because this was a low probability outcome.

By accurately characterizing the chances of success as moderate, the brand manager could see a need to borrow equity from another brand. Shooting high, the brand manager went for Louisville Slugger. It made the bat swung by legends such as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig. Every Little Leaguer wanted to be a slugger, and some of this brand’s affinity would hopefully rub off on Sundrop.

2. Personas

The unique lesson about personas offered by the Sundrop case is its multi-dimensional application. Personas were nailed for kids, parents, local community groups and regional organizations. Each persona embraced little league baseball. Each resonated with Sundrop as an underdog brand as well as with Louisville Slugger as a champion’s brand. The task of collecting and submitting bottle caps was readily translated by all personas as “stretch but achievable.” Further:

  • Kids were willing to collect those bottle caps. They were motivated by the prospect of playing with new, “Slugger” equipment.
  • Parents were willing to buy Sundrop six-packs every week or so. In fact, it is easy to imagine a parent buying a six-pack of Sundrop and surreptitiously pouring it down the drain just so their kids could sleep at night but still have a good haul of bottle caps for the day.
  • Coaches were motivated to remind kids and parents about the promotion and the need for new equipment.
  • The co-sponsor was willing to donate free equipment because they saw the very real possibility of making life-long brand alliances.
  • Communities were willing to support the promotion, perhaps by making Sundrop available at social functions, or maybe even in school cafeterias. Perhaps they created collection centers to facilitate bottle cap counting and mailing.
  • The Little League organization was willing to make an exception and be more commercial for a higher good: support those oft-ignored rural communities and get them some badly needed new equipment.

The brand manager’s ability to find and focus on themes that were clearly important within her target market can’t be over-emphasized. It is nearly impossible to simultaneously characterize so many personas with such accuracy. But, it will never happen if you don’t try. That is the key lesson here: look for multiple personas throughout the distribution channel. Pinpoint the overlaps and tie-ins: these offer key opportunities for connections, synergy and market share growth.

Learn more about getting and holding your audiences' attention with more human interactions—check out the 5 Pillars of Best-in-Class Marketing