It’s Thursday December 12, the day before the IHeartRadio Jingle Ball Tour hits its flagship venue, Madison Square Garden, and Austin Mahone just wants a cheeseburger and fries. And an Aquafina.
The 17-year-old pop singer has just flown in from Atlanta, where he co-headlined the previous night’s Jingle Ball, and is now in Manhattan, taking a seat in a conference room at the Parker Meridien in midtown to kick off his first meeting in his new role – digital and brand strategist for Aquafina FlavorSplash, a new line of flavored sparkling water targeted towards teens.
He’s joined at a large marble conference table by the three principals at Chase Entertainment (his management company and imprint label with Republic Records), Vernon Brown of Cash Money Records (which in September entered into a joint partnership with Chase Records), the senior brand management team at Aquafina, Pepsi’s senior cultural branding marketer Javier Farfan and Pepsi’s music agency RPM and their respective publicist. Rebecca Granne, senior director of marketing for Aquafina FlavorSplash, has just kicked things off to recap the brand’s first event with Mahone in October and is eager to start talking big plans for 2014.
“There were two big pieces of our thinking,” she says to Mahone, “one was around having you design the product itself. And —”
The conference room door opens. “Austin Mahoooone!” Charlie Walk, exec VP of Republic Records, has just walked in with Monte Lipman, the label’s CEO, to join the meeting. “Biggest star in the world,” he adds, taking a seat. “President-CEO of Austin Mahone Entertainment.”
Group Think:Top Row (left to right): RPM's Michael Monahan, Aquafina FlavorSplash's Tara Day, PepsiCo Beverages' Javier Farfan, Aquafina FlavorSplash's Jennifer Dubin, Chase Entertainment Michael Blumstein, Cash Money Records' Vernon Brown, Chase Ent.'s Rocco Valdes, Chase Ent.'s David Abram, PepsiCo's David Weiner, Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman CEO. Center (behind Austin Mahone) Charlie Walk, Republic Records; Bottom Row (l-r): Aquafina FlavorSplash's Rebecca Granne, Austin Mahone;
What already started as an atypical brand partnerships meeting, where an artist is actually in the room with the executive team to brainstorm ideas, has just become even more remarkable. So rare is the occasion where the heads of a record label, major brand, an artist and their management team all congregate to align strategies, that even one senior executive in the room could only name one other meeting of its kind with a major pop star. “And she didn’t get the deal she wanted,” the executive said.
Giving a celebrity – especially a musician – a “creative” title with a brand is nothing new, and actually a trend that picked up so much steam in 2013 it’s created a bit of backlash. Alicia Keys’ deal with Blackberry has been cited as a clunky last-ditch attempt to save the flagging brand, especially when the singer tweeted the news from her iPhone. And Justin Timberlake added new roles with MasterCard and Bud Light Platinum to his already hectic schedule this year, which would make meet-ups like the Mahone-Aquafina summit virtually impossible to orchestrate.
That's why even the language around Mahone's title with Aquafina was so important in terms of authenticity. "We were thinking, you know 'chief' - and he was like, 'Nahhh,' says Elisa Baker, senior manager for PepsiCo Beverages' brand communications. "Because, what does that mean to his fans? Nothing. 'I'm more along these lines.'"
Granne sees him more as a "teen gatekeeper. None of us in the room could pretend to speak to teens in the way that Austin can. If I saw one more proposal that said 'OMG. That's totes cool!' I was going to shoot myself."
Austin Mahone at MTV's VMAs kissing his fan-voted Best New Artist award.
Rather quickly in the conference room, the conversation moves from what’s at stake for Aquafina (their first entrant into the crowded flavored water category, but with a teen positioning designed to win over moms) to what’s at stake for Mahone. He’s released two singles this fall in advance of his debut album, due out next spring on Chase/Republic, but neither has connected in a major way beyond his massively loyal fanbase, the “Mahomies,” who’ve tweeted and Facebooked about the singer so much that he’s won the fan-voted Best New Artist award at both the MTV Video Music Awards in August and the European Music Awards in November.
“It’s really interesting that your career is about to get to a massive level,” says Farfan, who’s helped put together similar partnerships for acts like Beyonce, Hunter Hayes and Tate Stevens in the past year. “So we want to come in and learn ourselves the best ways to partner and amplify the brand, and make sure you get the most out of it.”
Granne begins discussing plans for a TV campaign, which Pepsi is prepared to start airing as early as late-January to perhaps capitalize on its media buys in the Grammys and the Super Bowl. “That could be too early for us,” says Rocco Valdes, co-founder at Chase Entertainment. “We were looking for the March window, when it was originally set out. We want to make sure Monte and Charlie and their whole machine is moving at the same time as the Aquafina-Pepsi team. I think it’s important that everyone move at the same time.”
Walk chimes in. “We want to be ready to go [with a new single] at top 40 by end of February, top of March at the latest,” he says. “As it relates to radio, Austin is on 12 Jingle Balls right now. All the reports I’ve gotten from Clear Channel is he’s the driver. Even though everyone’s coming out for Miley, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, they’re coming to see him. They switched his spot so he could close out the show in Minneapolis due to what you guys are seeing. So what I say to you from a marketing perspective is we’re gonna have a smash. So how do we help you for the first time create a radio spot, that’s music intensive, voiced over by a local radio guy market by market and do almost like a live read and give you a much bigger bang for your buck from an added value point of view? It’s a bigger conversation. We can bring in the heads of Clear Channel, give you more bang for the buck and gives the drinkers here a little bit of a musical taste and possible event driver to the store and beyond that hasn’t been done yet.”
Walk’s radio proposal is met favorably by the room, but Farfan cautions “that’s a tactic” without identifying a big idea for a TV campaign first. Granne mentions that Aquafina has tapped director Brian Robbins’ AwesomenessTV to direct a TV campaign with music video-caliber quality. “Aquafina FlavorSplash was born out of the idea of expression,” she says. “These are people that take a part of themselves and make it really big – they express themselves through whatever creative outlet they have. And the idea is that we would start with you,” she says, nodding to Mahone, “and start in some creative space where you find your inspiration. Do you have a place like that?”
Austin Mahone strategizing with Rebecca Granne (left) and Elisa Baker (right)(Photo: Rob Loud)
“I actually spend a lot of time in my shower,” Mahone says, scraping ketchup out of a bottle onto a plate of French fries.
“Wait, what?” says Baker. The room is laughing. “Time out.”
“My shower’s so big, no reason, and I was like, ‘You know what, why don’t I just put a couch in my shower? So I went out and bought one of those inflatable couches.”
“It’s a three-seater. It’s got cup holders,” notes Chase co-founder David Abram, amid more giggles.
Granne is into this. “So we could start there, maybe you have an interaction with the product, you take a sip, and it unleashes this whole transformation. You see other things that come to life, whether it’s people, graphics, that come together, and that takes you to this performance with Austin in front of a screaming crowd.”
Abram picks up on this. “So you could basically tell the story of a song and show where that ends up. The process in between.”
Though Aquafina FlavorSplash and it’s accompanying flavor enhancers are newcomers to a category that already includes Coke’s Vitamin Water, Kraft’s Mio and even a product from Troy Carter and Terry Richardson, they’re already learning in real-time that Mahone can help them move product. Just a few days prior, Mahone launched a promotion on his social accounts asking fans to “Make It Merry” by sending their friends a free bottle of FlavorSplash. In barely 24 hours, the promotion has already been redeemed 120,000 times thanks to his 6.6 million Facebook fans, 4.8 million Twitter followers and more than one million YouTube subscribers.
“I hate to say this, but we’ll have to take it down because we’re running out of product,” Granne says. “When we say 120,000 people, that’s 120,000 people completing a form, saying ‘sure I’ll give this brand, this company my name and address.’”
Michael Blumstein, the third principal at Chase Entertainment, can’t believe this. “Wait, didn’t we just start this last week?”
“Yeah, we were expecting to go through the end of the year,” Granne says. “Just so you know, these kind of numbers are what we get when we put national TV behind something. Not from a couple tweets.”
David Weiner, brand lead for PepsiCo Beverages’ digital and social engagement, pipes in, “We’ve already gotten 100,000 fans on our Facebook page, and that’s not a priority platform for us.”
Republic’s Lipman is hopeful that this campaign could have a dual effect on Mahone’s music. “We have up to a half-dozen records we’re circling right now that we’re considering. He’s a franchise artist, so it’s not just Chase and Republic, but it’s also going back to our international partners in certain territories so that it’s even bigger than the U.S. we want to deliver an international smash.”
Ideas this big.(Photo: Rob Loud)
Mahone returns to the studio in January to resume work on his album, a timeframe that piques Farfan’s interest. “That could be a great time to get content” for the TV spot, he says.
“It seems like we could shoot something and get on the air quick,” says Chase’s Abram. “What’s that timing look like?”
Roughly two weeks, says Granne. “The reality is, to get stuff on major networks, you need two weeks for traffic to get approvals for shoot, everybody’s legal department, we just need to talk about what’s reasonable.”
“I’m happy to help however I can,” Mahone says. He’s fighting off Jingle Ball jetlag, and Walk and Lipman still need to gear up for Republic’s holiday party later that night. But after Mahone says his good-byes, the executives all regroup to discuss next steps. After all, there’s not just a new PepsiCo product at stake – there’s an artist’s career.