November 14, 2006

News & Opinion: Mind Your X's and Y's by Lisa Johnson

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 4:55 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

What if a company recruited you by sending bits and pieces of your future story with them? That's exactly what the University of Oregon does to recruit their football team. Here's a look from Mind Your X's and Y's at way various organizations personalize their marketing efforts to reach Gen Xers and Yers.


Extreme Personalization Gives Marketing a New Face

Chris Murphy sits down in his bedroom to open the mail. The walls are lined with ribbons, trophies, and newspaper clippings.1 The headlines say it all: Murphy has the right stuff. States top receiver eyes the championship. The rest of the room is your average teenage haven an Xbox on the floor, CDs piled next to an iPod, and a stack of comic books in the corner. The pages are frayed and worn, but seventeenyear- old Chris hasnt spent much time reading comic books in the last year. Hes been too busy with school, social life, and football. Chris is a senior and the star receiver on his high school team. Hes already tasted the thrill of state championships. Next up, college.

Several times a week, a new batch of letters arrives from schools across the nation. They all have the same goalrecruiting Chris. He tears into one crisp envelope after another: Dear Chris, To Mr. Murphy. They bear formal seals and read like textbooks. At first the attention was flattering. They all want me? Chris thought with amazement. Soon it became difficult to separate one school fromanother.

He opens an envelope from the University of Oregon in Eugene. Poised to throw the paper on the trash pile, Chris stops. Its a partial comic book. Thats cool, he thinks, and starts flipping through the pages. Each frame looks professionally drawn. The only thing that sets it apart from his own stack of comic books is the black and white pagesNational Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recruitment bylaws prevent all schools from sending color materials. Hes about to set it down and head out for a run when he realizes theres something very different about this comic.

Mouth open in amazement, Chris flips back to the front cover. The whole comic book is about him. The title page reads, The Amazing O-Men. Mild-mannered Chris Murphy or Catch-everything C. Mack? A Hero Is Born. In the top right-hand corner is a personalized C. Mack logo intertwined with the Oregon O. Chris is the star of the story, which begins as he joins the Oregon Ducks and starts his collegiate football career, and each frame is drawn with a remarkable likeness to Chris himself. He methodically scans each and every page, then jumps from his bed and dashes out the door. By the end of the week, all his friends, his parents, and even his football coach have read the comic.

For the next few months, Chris eagerly awaits new installments. He receives a new section every couple weeks that takes the story just a little bit further. Its the first envelope he opens when the mail arrives and the only college mailout he reads from top to bottom.

One week, he receives page 13.

Heres the snap and a quick pass to Chris Murphy.

The next frame shows an ESPN broadcaster looking out over a packed Autzen Stadium, rising to his feet as he describes each play.

The next page is blank. A brief note tells Chris that hell receive the final piece when he visits the Eugene campus to check out the school in person.

Chris pulls out his duffel bag and begins packing.

College sports are big business. Money, prestige, and school reputations are all at stake, and everyone wants to snag the hottest highschool prospects. In the spring of a students junior year, colleges begin sending mail to potential student athletes. Most schools work with the more-is-better philosophy, flooding their prospects with letters and materials. The University of Oregon has taken a vastly different approach.

Back in 2002, Oregon decided to differentiate itself by combining traditional form letters with graphically rich mailers of different sizes, layouts, and formats. Their aim was to send their prospects more information of higher quality than any other school in the country. Every piece of mail was aligned with the Oregon football brandan in-your-face, cutting-edge look that infuses everything from the green and yellow uniforms to the schools state-of-the-artfacilities.

In 2003, the Oregon football staff and a team of twenty sportsmarketing interns launched a poster series that featured action shots of uniformed players (the face in shadow) with the recruits number running through the Oregon O. The players name was spelled in bold letters at the top of the poster and the bottom copy read, The Future of Oregon Football. The idea was to help each prospect build a relationship with Oregon by visualizing himself playing in the Ducks uniformas if he were already part of the team.

The first posters were sent to a handful of prospects with a personal note from the Oregon coaching staff. People were thrilled. Many recruits mentioned the personalized posters to their coaches, requested extra copies, or even contacted the recruiting staff to inquire about Oregon for the first time. The posters were used to welcome prospects and their families during official school visits. Opposing coaches mentioned the posters to Oregons staff with considerable envy as they noticed them framed, front and center, in many living rooms during their home-recruiting visits. The posters were clearly doing their job.

It was time to step it up. With the 2004 recruiting season on the horizon, the Oregon staff challenged themselves to create a full campaign that was targeted, personal, and innovative.

Deryk Gilmore, director of player development, and his team of student interns set four key objectives for 2004:

  1. Organize a separate mailing campaign for individuals who receive a written offer from Oregon.
  2. Individualize all mail in the interest of recruits and their personalities.
  3. Create specific identities and logos for recruits that bond them with Oregon football.
  4. Strive to be innovativeconstantly redefine the cutting edge.

They dubbed the campaign Coming to Oregon, and launched several initiatives, including the wildly successful personal comic books. Oregon football coaches also sent handwritten notes to each prospect on a weekly basis and outlined their favorite drills and training techniques in graphic postcards mailed to the prospects high-schoolcoaches.

In the late stages of recruiting, coaches also brought in magazine mock-ups. They entered players homes with mock-up copies of sports magazines featuring the recruits on the cover wearing Oregon uniforms. Instead of showing magazines depicting former Oregon stars, the marketing team decided to help recruits visualize what a career at Oregon could produce.

Parents were included in the process, too. The team created a diploma series, which reinforced the schools commitment to academics and to helping their sons graduate with high standing.2


The Connected Generation is eager for personal recognition. They want to make a differenceor at least a splash. The marketplace is waking up to a national obsession that sees ordinary citizens make their mark, achieve celebrity, and rise to prominence. Whether its singing on American Idol, writing a book or blog, getting their video on Current TV, or being celebrated as the next great surfer, this generation longs to be recognized for who they are and what they bring to theparty.

People are looking for their big break; they enjoy being big fish in small ponds. They feel ready to be known, and ready to have their dreams and experiences acknowledged and legitimized. Hand over the microphone and start the cameras rolling. Give them the backstage pass and the insider treatment. These folks are itching to stand out, stand up, and be celebrated with their names in lights (or print, or pixels).

In response, companies are waking up to the power of personalization and highly engaging tools that celebrate individuals talents and potential. Personalized license plates, stamps, and mailing labels were just baby steps. Today, a whole slew of high-end products put you smack in the center of the action. Companies large and small are getting in on the opportunity. Masterfoods has taken M&Ms color customization process one step further. The candies can now be printed with two lines of text, up to eight characters on every bite-size piece. Consumers can have their own custom-colored, personally branded treats for $9.49 for an 8 ounce bag (a plain old bag of M&Ms of the same size runs about $2.85).3

New York independent art and design catalog company Elsewares ( offers a custom six-panel comic drawn to order by artist Mark Weber, whose work has run in The New York Times, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Playboy. Hand-drawn, 8x11 art on 11x14 acid-free paper, the custom comic strip is a cool $150. If books are more your thing, husband-and-wife team J. S. Fletcher and Kathy Newbern will write you into one of their romance novels. For about $50, the intended couple can relive their romance in one of eight personalized books that range from mild to wild, incorporating into the text not only you and your sweeties names, but also your hometowns, occupations, pet names, hair color, perfume, and so on. At Highly Flammable Toys ( film-school grad Russ Tucker will feature you on a custom 81/2x12 inch movie poster ($95, plus shipping). You can add film critic quotes and a list of fake credits.

En masse, customers are leaving the audience and taking the stageready to stand in the spotlight. Brands that tap into this powerful need with highly creative and customized efforts will get not only some great buzz, but a whole new level of loyalty and brand ownership to match.

Why We Crave the Spotlight

  1. Were hardwired.
    Its human nature to crave attention. We all want to be recognized and celebratedwhether its on the football field or in our daily lives. We want to be understood, supported, desired, and even courted. We want to feel special.

  2. Were burned out.
    Weve all spent years being yelled at from the television screen. We dont want to be told anymore to buy the latest detergent or open a savings account. Consumersespecially media-savvy Generations X and Yare cynical and extremely educated about the entire marketing process. Add in a collective obsession with celebrities, and people everywhere are longing to experience the insider treatment. They want to feel like someone really cares about their dreams and desires.

  3. Weve seen whats possible.
    The quest for a high profile is now entrenched in our cultural fabric. Everyone knows a handful of people who have been plucked from the ordinary and enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame. Its fun to watch and observe real lives, and we feel like our own days might be just as interesting. New venues such as and Current TV, plus podcasts, blogs, reality television, and interactive Web sites, allow us to share our unique personalities and talents with the world. These new tools have made it simple to launch us and our friends into the public eye.

  4. Theres a sense of entitlement.
    Members of the Connected Generation see the market intimately tied to their own lives. Its a web of opportunity to explore, not a hierarchical structure to climb or conquer. I deserve it and Im ready for it now, is the common attitude. This group is not looking for a slow build, and they dont care about paying their dues.

  5. Every industry has a celebrity culture.
    Celebrated experts are everywhere todayno matter how mini or mundane the industry. From sought-after eyebrow shaper Anastasia (one of Oprahs favorites) to celebrity chefs who teach thousands of home cooks how to make thirty-minute meals, to plastic surgeons and dentists who orchestrate extreme makeovers, to landscapers, carpenters, and mechanics who outfit homes, yards, and cars, people have become famous for doing even the most behind-the-scenes work with flair and personality.

    Thanks to the proliferation of new media, including a vast wilderness of television cable channels, there are a greater number of people who receive widespread recognition and global profile. Add reality and unscripted television to the mix and you have a veritable celebrity free-for-all, with has-beens getting second chances and no-namers leaping into the headlines.

  6. People want profile in familiar formats.
    Television, video, magazinesthe basics still count. New media is everywhere, but people want to be where the daily interactions occur. They dont necessarily want to win awards or fellowships; they want profile. In the past, only the wealthy got their names out there by funding a library or backing a new hospital wing. Today the options are broader and the criteria for celebrity are random, quirky, and wide open. Consider Jared the Subway guy, who became famous for losing weight by eatingSubway sandwiches.

  7. Youthful celebs wield major power.
    Popular media are celebrating the youth culture more than ever before. The old Mickey Mouse Club has turned into a talent pool for young performers like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. With so many kids in the spotlight, children begin dreaming about their own celebrity sooner and with greater specificity. They also start preparing earlier. Kids are groomed to play college sports when theyre still in grade school, and parents, teachers, and coaches have all signed on to give their prodigies a jump start.

  8. We see where profile can take us.
    Jessica Simpson was a B-list singer living in the shadow of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera until her MTV reality show, Newlyweds, hit the air. What followed was an amazing series of lucrative opportunities, including cosmetic and clothing lines, product endorsements, movie roles, and countless magazine covers. Its not clear how long her star will shine, but she is a stellar example of how greater profile can open the door to financial and social prosperity. As consumers, we watch and learn.

  9. We want promotion without the appearance of self-promotion.
    Theres a fine line between self-promotion and having other people celebrate and recognize your contribution. While the Connected Generation craves the spotlight, its not considered cool to just shamelessly self-promote (to a point). You need other people to celebrate your talents and abilities. If one of the Oregon recruits made his own comic book, it simply wouldnt fly. Currency comes when someone else highlights you.

By all accounts, Oregons integrated marketing program was a huge success. The materials and innovative strategies were just one piece of the puzzle, but they helped the coaching staff land what many called Oregons greatest recruiting class ever. In fact, Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Superprep magazine (www.superprep .com), called the coveted and talented 2004 freshman group the surprise class of the year and ranked Oregons group of recruits number 10 in the nation.4 The previous year, Oregon had ranked a mere 41 out of 117 competing schools.

Recruits consistently expressed excitement about the materials and attention they received throughout the year. Perhaps the best indicator of success was the number of recruits who assumed their superhero personas while still playing for their high-school team. Local newspaper and online articles highlighting the athletic achievements of Bone Crusher, Action Jackson, The Dominator, and others surfaced in hometowns across the country. Although the Oregon marketing team was careful to work within all NCAA recruiting regulations, word spread about the incredible materials the school was sending to its prospects.5 The NCAA no longer allows Oregon to send comic books to their prospects.

Although the marketing approach had approval from NCAA governing officials prior to its launch and worked within industry guidelines, competing schools were up in arms over the unfair advantage it appeared to give the team. In a nutshell, Oregons marketing was scary good and it got them shut downa minor setback for a crackerjack creative team that has a habit of topping themselves each and every recruiting year.

Oregons recruiting campaign is an inspiring example of going over the top for a desirable inner circle. It was smart, savvy, and effective. Here are the key lessons to take away from the University of Oregons considerable success.

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Thisis an excerpt from Mind Your Xs And Ys: Satisfying the 10 Cravings of a New Generation of Consumers Satisfying the 10 Cravings of a New Generation of Consumers by Lisa Johnson, Free Press, August 2006.