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Marketers Follow the Flock to Spring Break

In Panama City Beach, Fla., 
this week, Mentholatum set up an oxygen bar promotion
In Panama City Beach, Fla., this week, Mentholatum set up an oxygen bar promotion
Published: March 9, 2006 in the New York Times Business section

By JULIE BOSMAN

MARKETING to students on spring break used to be simple: a company would set up a stand on the beach, hand out product samples and let the message spread itself.

But now, spring break has become a stage for increasingly expensive and sophisticated advertising campaigns. Throughout March, companies like Unilever and Gillette are saturating Daytona Beach and Panama City Beach in Florida and South Padre Island in Texas with sponsored events, beachfront oxygen bars and ads on everything from pillowcases to shower curtains.

Crest has created a tooth-brushing station on wheels that will appear outside nightclubs. Even the Army National Guard has a spring break presence: it is hoping to attract new recruits in South Padre with an obstacle course on the beach and recruitment officers passing out information.

Marketers who establish a presence in spring break areas hope not only to reach the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, which is typically resistant to traditional advertising, but to associate their brands with the positive memories students have of their vacations.

"The days of putting a branded tent on a beach and then handing out stuff is just dead," said Brian Martin, the chief executive of Vacation Connections, an event marketing firm based in Montclair, N.J., a division of Brand Connections. "It's becoming much more elaborate and much more extensive."

Marketers will spend more than $75 million this month to reach students on spring break, according to research by Vacation Connections. The company specializes in reaching consumers who are involved in recreation and most open to marketing messages, the company believes.

"When you're in vacation environments, you tend to be a little more receptive to marketing messages because everything is slowed down," Mr. Martin said.

Axe, made by Unilever, has introduced an estimated $2 million advertising campaign to promote its line of deodorant body sprays and shower gels aimed at young men. The company began advertising during spring break in 2003 with Axe- sponsored parties, but this year's campaign "Axe Boot Camp: Spring Break Readiness '06" is the biggest effort yet.

The campaign, which was created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York, aims to saturate consumers with constant marketing messages, beginning with buses plastered with Axe logos.

In hotels, where Axe pays for access, there are room keys stamped with Axe logos and posters in lobbies and elevators. In guestrooms, ads for Axe products are on shower curtains and pillowcases.

"This is the first time that we're trying to capture the emotional territory as well as the physical space," said David Rubin, the director of brand development for Axe. "It's a tough place to break through, and consumers have a lot of things going on. It's about having an idea and having an idea be relevant."

The challenge, some marketers say, is penetrating the clutter of advertising that spring break has become.

"It's sort of a veritable wasteland for logos and branding and that kind of thing, but not so much in engaging with that audience," Kevin Roddy, the executive creative director for Bartle Bogle in New York. "If it isn't done right, it's irritating, especially to this audience."

Axe has gotten attention in the past with ad campaigns heavy on sexual undertones, but its spring break advertising is even more explicit. One ad offers "rules of engagement" on co-ed showering. Another gives tips on how to successfully proposition a woman in an elevator. And hotel guests are even given customized do-not-disturb signs that read "Mission in Progress."

"It's all about trying to not just be a marketer, but to be an ally," Mr. Roddy said. (For the men, at least.)

Part of the marketing push may stem from the growing purchasing power of the college market. A recent study by Harris Interactive for Alloy Media and Marketing found that the college market was responsible for more than $175 billion a year in consumer spending.

And spring break has become a bigger business every year, said Gary Colen, the executive vice president of Alloy Media and Marketing. Mr. Colen said his agency would reach more than half a million college students on break this year.

One client, Disney, is promoting a gymnastics movie that opens on April 21 by setting up equipment for students to practice gymnastics moves; Gillette is sponsoring beachfront lounges and in-room samples to promote its Venus Vibrance razors; and the vitamin supplement Emergen-C is providing samples in hotel rooms and bars to re-invent itself as a hangover remedy.

"Brands are looking for ways to connect with college students in nontraditional ways, and spring break is a convenient way to reach a large mass of students," Mr. Colen said. "Spring break has always been a cornerstone opportunity for marketers to reach college students. Because they're hard to reach, marketers have to reach outside traditional tactics to reach them."

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