Company: Colorado State Tobacco Education & Prevention Partnership (STEPP), a division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment
Contact: Jodi Kopke, STEPP Media Director
Location: Denver, Colorado
Industry: Nonprofit/Government
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: 17

Quick Read:

With the National Conference on Tobacco or Health taking place Oct. 24-26 in Minneapolis, innovative anti-smoking campaigns have been in the spotlight. (The conference aims to help improve the effectiveness of tobacco control programs in the US.) One of the more successful programs has been the "Own Your C" campaign commissioned by the Colorado State Tobacco Education & Prevention Partnership (STEPP). By teaming with a Denver marketing firm, STEPP has leveraged teen empowerment as an effective strategy for connecting with 12-18-year-olds, a demographic often inundated with marketing hype.

The campaign—which includes an interactive Web site, television ads, school and community events, promotional T-shirts. and more—encourages teens to "own their choices" and arms them with the knowledge to make informed decisions about several topics, with a distinct focus on tobacco use. This declaration of independence, combined with a slew of teen-oriented features such as quirky videos, music downloads, and video games, has helped Colorado achieve its goal of reducing the youth tobacco use rate to below 16% some three years ahead of schedule.

The Challenge:

The tobacco industry continues to pump millions into marketing programs, spending a whopping $217 million in 2005 alone, while the effectiveness of anti-tobacco campaigns has waned. State agencies are seeking new ways to compete against these industry giants, using advertising budgets that pale in comparison. A further challenge lies in breaking through the clutter of advertising messages that bombard teenagers daily.

With the goal of reducing the rate of tobacco use among Colorado's youth from more than 18% to 16% by 2010, Colorado's State Tobacco Education & Prevention Partnership (STEPP) sought a novel approach for appealing to teens that would make its message stand out and be heard against the multitude of pitches aimed at this audience.

The Campaign:

STEPP determined through market research that teens "desire to be in control of their lives; are surrounded by negative messages and want to see things that reflect their optimism; and have high aspirations and respect brands that reflect this idealized version of themselves." With these considerations in mind, the agency partnered with Denver firm Cactus Marketing Communications to create a youth-relevant brand that would resonate with Colorado's 12- 18-year-old demographic.

Launched in Fall of 2006, the "Own Your C" campaign (where the "C" represents "Choice") aims to encourage teens to make positive choices in all areas of life, with an emphasis on tobacco-related information. The campaign incorporates a variety of marketing vehicles specific for this market, including the following:

A Web Site was designed as a teen-oriented and highly interactive site where users can learn, play and explore in "C-Ville," a virtual city that might be described as a fusion of Disney's Toon Town, Tim Burton movies, and MTV.

Users can choose a "Monsters" or "Romance" theme for the city, which is split into three main sections: the park, downtown area, and the drive-in.

In the park, users can chat about the choices they've made on discussion boards that cover topics such as school, music, sports, and relationships, or make choices regarding their futures while playing the "cootie catcher" game.

While in downtown, users can watch the campaign's TV spots, check out specially created artwork, enter contests, download music and ring tones, and get information about upcoming events.

And over at the drive-in, teens can read what their peers are saying about tobacco and add their own comments, watch entertaining videos that drive in the various effects of tobacco, or access resources to help them quit smoking.

The site also encourages users to become "C-Ville citizens" by signing up to receive the monthly newsletter and updates on contests and events.

TV Spots

Three "intentionally eclectic" television commercials were developed with the aim of creating buzz and enticing viewers to go to the Web site. All of the spots drive in the idea of making good choices, but each has its own style and storyline to appeal to differing interests. One, for example, uses contemporary animation, while another turns to comedy on the basketball court.

Promotional Items

Artists from the UK and the US were asked to depict what "own your C" means to them, and the designs were used to decorate T-shirts, hats, stickers, and magnets that are distributed at events throughout the state.

A Street Team

Hosting events across the state, program representatives travel to various schools and communities throughout Colorado in the lowered "C-Ride" ice cream truck, which features funky artwork, custom rims, high-tech lighting and sound, and a chrome "C" hood ornament. In addition to frozen treats, the street team distributes smoking-cessation materials and the various promotional items.

Quit Kits

For teens choosing to quit tobacco use, Cactus Marketing fashioned unique quit kits created to look like encyclopedias, with hollowed-out interiors that inconspicuously house journals filled with tips and inspirational messages, stress balls and chewing gum. In addition to being distributed by the street team, quit kits are delivered directly to high schools and community health agencies.

The Results:

Cigarette smoking among high school students has decreased to 14.6% from 18.2% in 2001, besting its goal of 16% by 2010, according to a Sept. 24, 2007 news release from the Colorado Governor's office. STEPP officials are confident that the "Own Your C" campaign has played an important role in this achievement.

Since the campaign was launched in fall 2006, close to 9,000 teens have signed up to become "C-Ville citizens" on the Web site, which received more than 310,000 unique visitors in the same time span.

The site has also won a number of advertising honors, including a 2007 Webby Award, 2007 One Show Merit Award, and two 2007 South by Southwest Web Awards.

STEPP and Cactus Marketing Communications say they believe that the campaign can be expanded nationwide—and that five states have shown an interest in implementing similar empowerment-based programs.

Lessons Learned:

  • STL (Speak their language): How you communicate to teens is as important as what you communicate, and this is true of vocabulary and tone as much as the method of communication used. Understanding that teens are drawn to those messages that relate to who they are and how they live, the "Own Your C" Web site, videos, and TV spots all incorporate trendy themes and hip terminology that attract today's teens. STEPP also uses discussion boards, games, and other social activities (not to mention ice cream!) that are popular among this generation to further get its message across.
  • Stay positive: Teens are, for the most part, highly optimistic and associate themselves with brands that portray positive images. The "Own Your C" strategy has been effective because it appreciates teens' desires to be empowered and make their own decisions, rather than focusing to the fear tactics often associated with anti-smoking campaigns.
  • Develop your marketing mix: Cactus Marketing suggests using multiple touch points to effectively engage the teen market. With a social Web site, television ads, cool gear, music downloads, and more, the "Own Your C" campaign encourages teens to interact with its "own your choices" messaging at home and out in the community as well as in school.

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Case Study: How a State Agency's Anti-Smoking Campaign Effectively Reached Teens via the Web, TV and Live Events

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via