Jenner Richard skateboards on company time. Greg Waters buys Playboy magazine with the company card. Julie Jatlow talks to some of the world's most famous action-sports athletes and gets paid for it.
Youth culture rules at Fuse Integrated Sports Marketing, a 35-employee Burlington marketing services firm, which also has offices in San Francisco. Not only are the people who work here young -- the median age is 25 -- so is their target audience. Fuse's biggest clients are Fortune 500 corporations -- Ford, PepsiCo and Motorola -- trying to catch the eye, and wallets, of teen and young-adult buyers. Fuse helps them get their game with ads and other marketing efforts, such as sponsorships of events and athletes, that make it with youth. Firm leaders Bill Carter and Brett Smith were recently listed in Fast Company's "Fast 50" -- the magazine's annual readers' challenge highlighting the top business innovators of the year.
A lot of what Fuse does is about action -- once known as "extreme" -- sports like skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross. For the second year Jenner Richard is organizing and traveling with the Mountain Dew Free Flow tour, a skateboarding competition in which amateurs compete for money and prizes. Greg Waters, 26, works primarily as PR manager for Gravis shoes and buys magazines -- including, yes, Playboy -- that feature PR "hits" of the skateboarder-style products. Part of Julie Jat-low's job as a consultant includes matching athletes with companies that have sponsorship money to spend.
Along with Burton Snowboards and Jager DiPaola Kemp Design, Fuse has a reputation among twentysomethings as one of the coolest places to work in Burlington. Company president Bill Carter welcomes the hundreds of job queries that come in each year. "If we get dozens of resumes each week, that's great," he says. "Then we get to pick from the smartest of the bunch."
Inside the company's office at the Maltex Building on Pine Street, the brick and stone walls, Ikea furniture and arched windows give the place a hip feel. Employees wear sneakers and hoodies, and contented-looking dogs loaf beside their owners' desks or wander out to sniff a passerby. Colorful skateboards and posters of pro snowboarders and male and female beefcake adorn the walls.
"It's structured but not corporate," says Seth Neary, 31, a designer and video editor. "We can wear jeans and a T-shirt and still get the job done well."
Fuse was founded in 1995 by Teresa Jenson, a longtime Burton employee, who envisioned a firm that would provide marketing services to snowboarding companies. By mid-1998 she left to become a full-time mom, and Carter and Smith repositioned the company to attract more lucrative accounts.
"The real money is with Fortune 500 companies who use sports to reach teens and young adults," Carter says, noting the company also continues to work with clients like Burton and Gravis.
The change was a shrewd business move. Today, Fuse has broadened its scope to include four pillars of kid culture: action sports, music, fashion and technology. For instance, the company is currently working to create a music-focused Motorola promotion that could include sponsoring summer tours and bands. Their projects run the gamut from entire marketing campaigns to down-and-dirty tactical efforts like event logistics and creating press kits. Fuse designs logos and "premiums" for events -- things like stickers, T-shirts and plastic cups that kids can take home. About the only thing Fuse doesn't do is create broadcast ads.
The company's core audience is 15- to 19-year-olds, though Carter says the demographic stretches to people in their mid-thirties. The reason for marketing to teens is simple: There are 32 million of them in the U.S. today. And that number is predicted to rise to 35 million by 2010. Last year teens spent $153 billion on products such as video games, computers and cell phones -- not to mention soda and fast food. But it's not just teen money companies are after.
"What's also important for a lot of companies is the idea of capturing the loyalty of a teen consumer," Carter says. A teen might start out with Mountain Dew -- PepsiCo's "gateway" beverage -- then move on to Pepsi as a twentysomething and Diet Pepsi at middle age. Older adults move on to Diet Pepsi. "Now you've sold 15 to 20 years' worth of product," Carter explains.
But a company can't build brand loyalty if it doesn't speak the language of its target audience. "There's a lot less room for error when marketing to teens," Carter notes. "They're far more suspect of marketing and advertising, and much more tuned in to what's relevant and irrelevant to them."
Much of Fuse's job, then, is translating youth culture to its clients. Left to its own devices, a company might create a marketing piece that's not "authentic," or talk to kids in a way that a stodgy adult thinks is cool but is really just the opposite. If a company looks like it's trying too hard, it's bound to lose cred.
Catch phrases automatically lose their cool the minute they get co-opted. The word extreme -- or its shorthand, the letter x -- became irrelevant to Fuse when banks started touting "extreme" checking accounts. Too much reliance on jargon can be a problem, anyway. Words go in and out of style at the speed of light. And California surfer-speak may be unintelligible to New York City skateboarders or snowboarders in Vermont.
It's also important to look like you know what you're doing. An agency might create a snowboarding or skateboarding ad based on the mainstream media's image of that sport. But if the snowboard bindings are set up wrong or a kid is doing skating tricks while wearing flimsy sandals, then the target audience will simply walk away laughing.
"This demographic knows when there's fluff," says Jatlow, 27, part of Fuse's Mountain Dew consulting team. "We want the consumer to believe in the brand."
The key to Fuse's success is its employees. All are enthusiastic participants in youth culture and experts in the field. The staff includes two former professional snowboarders. Nearly everyone skateboards. Some ride motocross. And they're all into music. Director of consulting Issa Sawabini, 25, wakeboards, snowboards and surfs. "They live it and they know it," he says of the staff. "It's as valuable as a college degree to know those things."
Many of the employees travel to action-sports events around the world, and everyone keeps an eye out for the latest trends, like fashion styles and word choices. "We're good at identifying the next thing," Sawabini suggests. To keep its clients near the cutting edge without falling off it, team Fuse looks to the 10 percent of teens Carter calls "opinion leaders" -- kids who adopt a style, make it their own, and then ease it into the mainstream. "Our job is to sell stuff," he explains. "We can't be exclusive and push people away."
Trying to influence teens' interest and buying habits may seem unethical to some people, and it's something Carter and Brett Smith profess to think about a lot. "We don't question ourselves on moral grounds as long as we keep our marketing tactics a two-way street and not manipulative," Carter says. "We also make sure we're giving back to the teen consumer." The Free Flow tour, for instance, gives kids the chance to try out tricks in front of an audience -- for free.
At Fuse, relative youngsters hold much higher levels of responsibility than their counterparts in the corporate sector. And that's just how Carter likes it.
"I get disappointed in [America's] business culture that says, 'You've gone to college and graduate school and you've done well there. Now you have to pay your dues and keep your mouth shut. Maybe when you're 35 we'll let you talk,'" Carter says. "Down the hall here you have a 25-year-old managing a $5 million budget. Fuse employees are true decision-makers."
With responsibility, of course, comes a fair amount of stress and hard work. An event might require 12- to 14-hour days, plus travel time. Last week, for instance, Seth Neary stayed in the office until midnight editing a video for Motorola, but that's all right by him. "Being able to do cool things with video is fun," Neary says. "And the payoff is, I get to say the next morning, 'Check out what I did last night.'"
As people age their priorities often shift -- witness Fuse's founder and her desire to be home with her kids. That won't be the case with everyone, of course, and Carter insists no one will be asked to leave Fuse when they turn 30. As production manager J.D. Dale points out, it really doesn't matter if you're 25 or 35 -- if you're into action sports, reading the magazines and taking part, then you are part of that culture. After all, professional skateboarder Tony Hawk is 34 and a dad.
But change is inevitable. Until six months ago, everyone at Fuse was single and no one had children. Then Carter hired someone who was married, and another employee tied the knot. One staffer is preparing to have a baby. "We just had a conversation about maternity leave and I said, 'Huh, we never thought about that before,'" says Carter, who is 34.
As for the company's future, well, who knows? Fuse might one day be bought out by a larger agency, which could mean a move out of Burlington, Carter notes. But not yet. "It would be so difficult to retain our corporate culture that, for now," he concludes, "we just won't waver on it."