My young, hip, urban friends have started drinking , saying that it's a great cure for a hangover. Why does this matter? It means that Vita Coco's ' ' is working.
It's an audience that Pabst Blue Ribbon a decade ago with low-key sponsorships of bike-messenger competitions and by making sure PBR is available at " " -- and it paid off, allowing the company to last year.
The sudden appearance of coconut water in my life reminded me of a 2008 short story in the New Yorker, , about a group of hip early-adopters whose beautiful-people party at a textile warehouse is infiltrated by a charming, good-looking guy named Raj, who brings with him an "unfamiliar brand of vodka." The next day, the protagonist discovers photos of himself from the party on a "Feel-The-Refreshment" corporate site, and realizes that Raj was an undercover 'brand ambassador' who had been paid to come to the party and take the photos.
"Something precious to me had been violated, something I’d been holding on to. A secret pleasure that I hadn’t wanted to throw into the big commercial vat with all the rest of the stuff—all the other moments and memories that get recycled into processed trends, like so many cheese triangles," wrote . "Sunita’s party had been private. That is the only way I can put it. The party had been private and he’d made it public."
The protagonist then starts worrying anytime any of his friends talks about a brand or product that they may in fact be paid to do so, rather than organically endorsing the things that they like.
Of course, there is a difference between your friends being paid to endorse products (as in the story of the fictional vodka) and marketing campaigns that successfully target your friends (as coconut water apparently has with mine). The FCC has , requiring that those paid to give endorsements disclose that fact (including mommy bloggers who get free bottles to review and exercise bloggers who get hooked up with free energy bars from attention-craved companies).
But now these endorsements are migrating to the offline world, and particularly to college campuses, as detailed in a lengthy business article in the this weekend. Companies like American Eagle Outfitters, HP, Microsoft and Target hire college kids to wear their logos and promote their brands around campus. American Eagle-clad upperclassmen even swooped in to help freshmen and their families carry things from their cars to their dorm rooms -- all while handing out coupons, AE pens, and AE water canisters (though a University of North Carolina administrator was a bit miffed that AE hadn't contacted the university for permission to send their corporate ambassadors to help out on moving day).
So how do brands choose their reps?
The students most in demand are those who are popular — ones involved in athletics, music, fraternities or sororities. Thousands of Facebook friends help, too. What companies want are students with inside knowledge of school traditions and campus hotspots. In short, they want students with the cred to make brands seem cool, in ways that a TV or magazine ad never could.
Given the way that we now make our social graphs and circles of influence visible to the world through Facebook and Twitter, companies no longer have to rely on celebrities alone to spread word of their products. They can actually identify the influential people within micro-communities (like a college campus). This, of course, is what the social-ranking service is all about -- figuring out who " " are, based on the waves they make on social media.
As we discover more and more ways to filter out advertisements from DVRing around commercials to employing ad blocking add-ons in our Web browsers, companies are trying to find new ways to break through. "Peer-to-peer" or "word of mouth" marketing has always been a way to get around those filters, but it seems that social media may be helping in putting companies directly in touch with those peers and paying for those words to go into mouths. Of course, if they get too annoying about it, peers might start filtering out the paid peers. Says one Florida college student who is paid by Hewlett-Packard to promote its products around campus:
“I am constantly marketing on Facebook and Twitter,” she says, “to the point where my friends threaten to block me because I am constantly posting about H.P.”
I've written many times before that . In response, some critics have said that we get all the downside of celebrity-hood -- the exposure and the unrelenting pressure of the public gaze -- with none of the upside. So here's some good news: if you're lucky/popular enough on the Interwebs, you might be paid to endorse a brand and get to help college kids carry boxes.