Lessons From Lenny

September 15, 2008       Michele Donohue      

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) had harrowing statistics — everyday in the state four people die in alcohol-related crashes. But the problem remained – how do you translate the serious drunk driving situation to a care-free, younger crowd?  Lenny the plastic deer is smart enough not to drink and drive.

One solution was a video of a plastic deer named Lenny getting drunk and rowdy, but deciding to take a taxi home. Lenny remains a spring break regular two years after the campaign launch, taking pictures with bathing suit-clad coeds and still delivering a message – don’t drive drunk.

“We wanted it to be a communicative campaign that young people could share and pass along,” said Mark Cross, spokesman for TxDOT, which launched the sober driving Web site

WhosDrivingTonight.org aimed at teenagers to college students. “We found they wanted light hearted – they wanted to see something a little more fun and that’s what we tried to create.”

Gen Y, millennials, Echo Boomers – it doesn’t matter what your organization calls them. It’s hard to create marketing messages for 18- to 34-year olds – people who have grown up with technology and barraged with marketing since they were in diapers.

Nonprofit marketers from around the country told their success stories, such as “Lenny,” during the recent 2008 American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketing Conference in Washington, D.C.

WhosDrivingTonight.org meshes drunk-driving consequences, like legal costs, with quirky YouTube-style videos. The video featuring party-hard Lenny is a viewer favorite. “I wish I could say we were brilliant marketers and we came up with this strategy deliberately — but that’s not it,” said Janet Lea, senior vice president of Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing in Austin, Texas, who worked on the Who’s Driving Tonight? campaign. “It was completely unexpected. What college kids told us was that Lenny is completely non-threatening. He’s hip and smart. How can you be offended by something that a plastic deer implies? He’s a crazy plastic deer that knows what he has to do.”

Lea said that the creative team tried to engage college kids and the younger crowd with humor. But the extensive process tested more than 50 different concepts to find ones that worked with the demographic. The problem wasn’t creating humorous video situations – like a fumbling Abraham Lincoln public service announcement or senior citizens regretting their drunken antics. The hardest part was making the information relevant and hard-hitting enough to affect teens and young adults.

“Adolescents think they are going to be around forever. Young people don’t spend time thinking about health issues. You have to use a very sideways approach to the mindset,” said Dr. Cheryl Halton, CEO and president for the Washington, D.C.-based American Legacy Foundation (ALF).

ALF launched the “truth” campaign in February 2000 aimed at youth smoking prevention. It taps into the natural desire to rebel. “We position the truth brand as the alternative to smoking – that’s an act of useful rebellion,” said Halton.

Millennials require different marketing approaches from their parents. Health issues take a backseat to image, and peer-to-peer messages carry more weight than authorities. Both campaigns decided to launch micro-sites with URLs unconnected with the umbrella organization. “It was very conscious. In the audience we are talking about they don’t respond to preaching, it might damage the credibility – if you were truly looking for it you could find it, but the client didn’t think they need to be front and center,” said Lea.

Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), based in New York City, runs the Web site CheckYourself.org aimed at teens dabbling in recreational drug use. The site uses forums, other teens’ stories, interactive situational quizzes and more to help teens objectively look at their drug use and assess whether their use is escalating. PDFA made the decision not to feature its relationship with Check Yourself on the homepage. “We really felt that branding it with Partnership would not be smart. It would immediately throw up a wall,” said Sean Clarkin, director of strategy and program at PDFA. “We wanted to create a new space where kids didn’t feel like they were being judged.”

“I think the important thing with teens and millennials is that you’re up-front with them and don’t set out to try to be cool because their radar picks up on that immediately. It’s about being honest and transparent with them. From what we have learned, this group is very media savvy.

They can look at something like our teen site and question, “Who is behind this?'” said Joe Keenan, executive vice president and director of digital production development for PDFA. Keenan said sites should be designed so that teens can access the organization’s name in just one or two clicks and that giving the organization’s name should not hinder the message.

“We talked to some teens and it didn’t affect the credibility of the [Check Yourself] site. They might not agree with what we’re saying, but they know that there is a credible, research-based, professional organization behind this and not a fly-by-night operation.”

One thing is certain – organizations that want to reach the younger crowd must have a strong Internet presence. The truth campaign changes the creative direction every three months and reinvents its Web site theTruth.com once or twice a year to stay fresh for the demographic. And keeping in the loop means tons of interactive features like games, blogs and a truth-or-dare Facebook application. DJs and bands remixed music from truth’s “Sunny Side” campaign, featuring satirical musical numbers, which teens could download on music distribution sites.

“We want to ensure our message remains fresh. It is harder to get through to a teen because we are not on the top of the teen’s mind,” said Eric Asche, vice president for marketing at ALF. “Teens are in control of their media channels. They decide whether they are going to invite you in or dismiss you.” NPT