Photo via Steven Depolo (stevendepolo) at Flickr CC

Daredevils: How Monster Energy Forecast the Rise of a Fringe Sport to a Billion-Dollar Tune

For marketers in sports and entertainment, one of the best strategies to capture core consumers is to identify a hot trend before its audience and value is formally established.

Monster Energy is a prime example of this. The brand capitalized on an emerging sport in the late 1990s, when it began to sponsor athletes in the then little known sport converting daredevils and alternative crowds across the U.S.: motocross. They were guided to the world of motocross by Mark Hall, who became the president of Hansen’s (Monster Energy’s parent company) in 1997. At the time, the company was struggling to grow as a soda and sparkling juice brand with under $20M in revenue. Today, Hansen’s is generating over $2B in annual revenues and is one of the biggest success stories in beverage history, largely resulting from their ability to capture a massive audience in sports outside the mainstream. With that in mind, let’s go back to the beginning….

When Hall launched Monster, Red Bull energy was its largest competitor, with a massive market in Europe and a strong launch in the U.S. In order to compete, Hall needed to reach a rising tide of potential energy drink consumers by differentiating his product—associating it with sports perceived to be counter-culture. Monster Energy could have taken on any number of identities. But through aggressive branding and sponsorship, it shaped itself into a public reception as more rebellious and anti-establishment than Red Bull.

Photo via bikephotomusic on Flickr CC

Photo via bikephotomusic on Flickr CC

According to Jason Belzer, Forbes contributor, “No one tactic that companies and organizations use to reach consumers has undergone more transformation than sponsorship.” He argues that sponsorship has changed from a novelty, when only the largest companies could afford national airtime sponsorship, to more accessible options on TV and the Internet. As a result, growing companies like Monster Energy can localize ads specific to their demographic. In other words, sponsorship—dollar for dollar—is arguably the most important tool for sports and entertainment in the $100B world of advertising.

Hall understood a crucial tenet of successful branding: that lifestyle marketing was essential to creating a consumer connection to his core audience—young, blue-collar males. Hall was able to reach them through motocross, an extreme sport with a fervent but not yet mobilized fan base. Here, Hall saw an opportunity for growth, as the X-games, which debuted in 1995, were beginning to bring these sports to large audiences on live national TV. First-time viewers watched in awe as riders like Travis Pastrana performed jaw-dropping double back-flips off of giant dirt mounds, getting over 75 feet of air. The sport was dangerous; its stunning feats soon earned respect. Hall decided to focus strictly on the sponsorship of these athletes over expensive media buys. He went to the X-games with $25K in cash.

Monster’s early foray into motocross and other extreme sports was a tremendous success; it landed them a massive and loyal fan base while these events were becoming nationally recognized mega sports. In an industry like beverage, where a majority of new brands fail, they were able to prevail. Today, Monster is deeply rooted in an action sports culture that has become mainstream, with billions of dollars in annual consumer spending. This venture allowed Monster to get into the ring with Red Bull and establish national distributors like Pepsi, Coke and DPSG.

So what’s the next big sport? With $102M in advertising dollars spent in 2012, mainstream exposure to endurance sports like marathons, triathlons, and 5ks is growing. Also reaching a broader audience is a rising tide of adventure racing sports such as The Spartan, Ultra-Trail, and timed trials such as CrossFit. Last year, 1.5 million Americans participated in the three largest obstacle companies (Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash). If you are leading a brand chasing today’s next big sports market, look out for the rapidly developing strength of endurance sports and opportunities to get behind them.



Looking for Data in All the Wrong Places: Mining Twitter for Consumer Purchasing Intent

Emerging research on the political implications of social media suggests that, when it comes to forecasting election results, Twitter hype matters more than tweet type. Social scientists at Indiana University looked to Twitter as an alternative to traditional polling, combing the site for election-related posts from the run-up to the 2010 congressional races. They found that candidates with higher raw shares of Twitter mentions won by roughly the same margin of votes, regardless of whether the tweet reflected positively or negatively on the candidate. Remarkably, for hopeful politicians in competitive races, even negative press was good press on Twitter.

Studies on Internet buzz and consumption suggest that the predictive power of tweet frequency also applies to market outcomes. For example, in one 2010 HP Labs study, analysts found that the rate at which people Tweeted about new movies correlated to real box-office revenues. Furthermore, these Twitter-based predictions systematically outperformed in accuracy those of the Hollywood Stock Exchange, the industry’s classic gold standard of information markets.

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But, do negative tweets contribute to positive buzz for consumer products in the same way they do for politicians? Findings on the relationship between tweet sentiment and consumer purchasing behavior are less clear-cut. A 2011 study on Twitter mood and stock market trends found that, while the general positive or negative sentiment of tweets contributed little to forecast accuracy, the relative “calmness” of Twitter users did correlate to daily fluctuations in the closing values of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Thus, while the emotional polarity of tweets did not make much difference, other dimensions of tweet sentiment were still relevant.

For brands seeking to attract and retain consumers on Twitter, proactive interaction, rather than passive buzz, seems to matter as well. A review of tweets from consumer electronics brands found that UK shoppers exposed to brand tweets were 65% more likely than the average Internet user to add products to their carts on those companies’ websites. Overall, Twitter users are 50% more likely to purchase from brands they follow.

Ultimately, determining the optimal balance between tweet quantity and quality will depend on the answer to a more complex question: what comes first, the consumer or the Tweet? Are box-office hits well-tweeted because they are already well-liked? Or, does the mere exposure effect—by which familiarity breeds favorites—make Twitter a real determinant of purchase intent? When the platform is flooded with an average of 58 million tweets per day, Twitter presents tricky terrain for those hoping to make a lasting impression on potential fans, followers, and consumers. But, as the findings above suggest, mining the Twittersphere for hints of socialized consumption can provide insights for the architects of social media campaigns.


Opportunity Collaboration Image

Disruptive Collaboration: A Very Merry Unconference To You


The purpose of the Opportunity Collaboration, which organizes business retreats for nonprofit leaders around the world, is uniquely social: to gather together nonprofit leaders in person for four days of active, ego-less discussion in the hope that an ensemble of doers can spark the cross-fertilization of powerful ideas that results in real change in the fight against poverty. And yet, while they maintain a thoughtful social media presence during 51 weeks of the year, the organization has deliberately excluded social media from its retreat experience.

The result on behalf of the leadership of Opportunity Collaboration is surprising: they are smart, outgoing, and have worked with hundreds of leaders in the field to make their business retreat truly worthwhile. They, like the participants of their un-conference*, as they call it, know that social media is necessary to mobilize people remotely or otherwise beyond daily immediate impact. They have harnessed its power, and have an active presence on Facebook and Twitter. Why then, are people who are clearly so thoughtfully engaged on social media and deeply collaborative by nature, making the choice to actively eschew social media from their time together during the week of the un-conference?

First, it’s useful to know that the Opportunity Collaboration is not your traditional gathering of like-minded individuals from a similar sector. A business retreat for thought leaders fighting poverty, it is financed solely by Delegate registrations. The entire purpose of the program is driven by the Delegates, and thus responds to them—a narrowed focus that is both empowering and limited.

Those who have traveled the conference circuit themselves may be surprised to hear that, at the Opportunity Collaboration, there are no deliberately exclusive aspects to the conference’s programming—closed-door dinners or panels that limit attendance. Rather, the event is tailored to the 350 Delegates in attendance, with over 124 policy sessions and a relationship-building program that allows for networking even in advance of arrival day. The retreat, in this sense, is driven by the intimate relationships fostered between delegates. The more the institutionally-cultivated intimacy fosters this close network, these many tangled and productive opportunities for frenzied collaboration over the four-day period, the more it tightens them, making them useful to participants—and impenetrable to those outside the exclusive party. It enables while it limits.

Part of forgoing social media is logistical: this year’s “un-conference” is being held in Ixtapa, Mexico, where internet access has historically been unreliable—although improving. Topher Wilkins, the Chief Executive Officer of Opportunity Collaboration, acknowledges this trade-off as a self-conscious branding decision taking full account of both costs and benefits, saying they’ve limited themselves only to the poverty solvers who become Delegates and lost touch with would-be worthy scholars not within that immediate group. Furthermore, the Opportunity Collaboration sells the retreat as a useful time to unplug and engage in conversations without social media they believe can be distracting. “Our brand is built around a high-end, high-touch model to convening, connecting and creating greater opportunities to collaborate amongst our core group of constituents,” wrote Topher in an email. “Because we’ve never emphasized the quantity of people we influence, but rather the quality of interactions amongst our relatively small but immensely powerful and influential network, I believe we’ve lost very little in not allowing social media more deeply into our un-conference.”

These losses are minimized by existing infrastructure at the conference that facilitates information-sharing among Delegates, each of whom has a personal mailbox on site. Twice a day, time is formally left unscheduled so Delegates can pursue private business meetings with each other without fear of missing out on some of the weekend’s programming. The functions of social media are replicated through these systems—the traditional mail and systematized meeting spaces on which the networks built.

Only those not included at the conference really lose out—but they may engage with the big ideas the Opportunity Collaboration fosters once the Delegates leave the four-day retreat from connectivity and rewire, reboot, and disseminate the big ideas they’ve developed.

Topher concluded his email to us with a powerful image illuminating the difference between interactions that occur on the internet, and those that occur in person. “While social media can provide the spark,” he said, “our physical, human-to-human interactions fuel the flame.” We agree—but, here, we think it’s useful to return to an earlier point: the Opportunity Collaboration may not be immediately concerned with quantity of people reached, but once the flame is strengthened, the fire that catches quickest can burn brightest.


*What won’t you find at an un-conference? According to Opportunity Collaboration’s website: “Plenary Lectures; Talkers, Not Doers, Business Cards & Briefcases; Auditorium Seating; Hidden Expenses; Kitschy Swag; Institutional Egos or Filibusters; Death by PowerPoint.”



  • The way you use social media should reflect your brand. We think social media could be usefully leveraged during the Opportunity Collaboration retreat, but we do think Topher is right on point in being brand-conscious. What do your social media presence say about your brand’s personality and your company’s core values?
  • What is the value of social media, apart from connecting people on a scale unprecedented prior to the internet? It helps gather people with like interests who might not otherwise meet. It provides a score of other services. How can they be replicated in its absence?
  • Finally, we want to borrow a question from Topher. When we asked how social media integration would occur at the Opportunity Collaboration, how it would differ from that at other (un)conferences, Topher aptly queried, “Not sure really…is there such a thing as un-social media?” What do you think?

Switching to Consulting Career: What Can You Do About Yourself?

Coming from another career, switching to consulting can raise a whole set of problems. The external seem evident—dealing with case studies, knowing the right firms, etc—but internal factors cannot be underestimated. Purnima Travedi, a former architect with an MBA and Masters of Finance from Hult International Business College, boiled down these internal factors into five digestible “Obstacles,” during a speech (well, more of a discussion, given the energetic audience participation) at her alma mater’s Consulting Club.

“Where do you start?” she asked the room of  aspiring consultants, “be your own consultant.” That is, think of your life as your case study; define your current station in life as an SCQ: situation, where are you in life right now; complication, what obstacles do you face; question, where do you go from here? Analyzing your internal processes as a consultant is a clever bit of method acting, and Purnima sold the room of Hult students on the concept through an involved debate.

Within the same “be your own consultant” mindset, Purnima hit her next major point: Figure out where you fit in the world. With the same SCQ approach, the Hult students engaged themselves in the thought exercise and determined what industry best suited their situation, talents, personality, and passion.

But the golden insight of the night—and a lesson worthwhile to just about everybody—was to simply stop trying too hard. To overcome Purnima’s fourth major obstacle, “Networking,” she suggested the tried-and-true approach of relaxing and simply being a good, friendly person. When you meet someone to network, don’t just sell yourself. Have a conversation, loosen up, tell a couple of jokes. “Become a nicer person,” she said, “stop selling so hard.” It is a lot easier to forge a relationship based on genuine understanding than an impersonal pitch.

Truthfully, there is no magic wand that one can wave to solve these problems. To solve problems this personal, deeply personal solutions are required.

But it can also be said that the root of all these obstacles is a need for flexibility and sharp adaptation to both external forces and internal roadblocks. If step one, as Purnima says, is to embody consulting, inside and out, then the Hult Consulting Club now has a leg up on the competition. And if you want to get on their level, too, check out Purnima’s entire presentation on slideshare


Leveraging Social Data for Brands: refine+focus CEO, Zachary Braiker speaks with CIO

Community managers have a lot of different backgrounds and skillets, but many of us share an interest in word choice. When representing a brand on social, searching for the words that create opportunities for engagement is not always easy due to the sheer amount of real-time data being generated.

Cold-EEZE, a cold remedy maker is one such client which we have helped break through the clutter by giving community managers the right tools to find people who are tweeting about cough and cold symptoms and helping them “Get Well Sooner”. By doing so, the company engages people at times when they are not only considering its category of products the most, but are likely to grateful for a brand that is listening.

Our CEO, Zachary Braiker was recently interviewed by CIO and spoke about the effectiveness of using simple tools such as Twitter’s native Search API for uncovering social data and fostering these types of genuine interactions. You can read the full article here.


What is Reverse Engineering?


Reverse engineering.  The term smacks of clandestine military operations, gleeful scientists in white coats, reversible programming.  And indeed, the beauty of the reverse engineer is her ability to appropriate such images, his talent at moving from completion to the start.  Simply put, reverse engineering is taking something  apart to figure out how it works, in order then to duplicate it or make it somehow better.  But at refine+focus we see reverse engineering as a mindset, a way of moving forward.  We analyze desired outcomes and devise strategies to get you there.  We use the knowledge of the past to bring us forward towards the future.  William Blake wrote, “Without contraries is no progression,” and though we’re not sure what he would have thought of the modern world, the internet, and social media, we are happy to take our cues from a poet.

Here’s reverse engineering and some examples of how it really works:

Jerry cans: During the Second World War Allied forces found that German cars had superiorly designed gasoline cans.  Working backwards from captured models, they created these better cans themselves.  In homage, of a sort, they christened them “Jerry cans.”

Slater’s textile mills: At 10, in 1778, Samuel Slater was working in a cotton mill in England.  By 21 he knew just as much as anyone in the country about the mechanics of textiles.  In 1789, he jumped ship for New York, after memorizing the plans for the miraculous machines, and brought the industrial revolution to America, rebuilding the secret machines there.  By the time he died he was master of 13 spinning mills and even had a town named after him: Slatersville, RI.

V2 Rockets: V2 Rockets were the first man-made objects to make it to outer-space, and the first long range ballistic missiles.  During the beginning of World War II they were used by the Germans to target London.  After the war, when British and American forces got hold of the missiles, they reverse engineered them for their own purposes, beginning the space race.

The Rosetta Stone: Created in Memphis in 196 BCE, rediscovered in 1799 by a French soldier during the construction of a fort, the stone has the same short text repeated in three different languages.  After the ancient Greek was translated, it was short work to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which allowed us access to a hitherto forgotten tongue.  The term Rosetta Stone is now often used as a marker for the key to new areas of knowledge.

Calculus: Evaluating integrals, perhaps a high school or college student’s worst nightmare, is a practice in reverse engineering.  To evaluate, the student needs to find the antiderivative of the integrand—in other words, the function that, when you take the derivative of it, becomes the integrand.  It’s a reverse engineering process, starting from the end and working backwards.


The Fisher Space Pen Company: Legend has it that, during the space race, Soviet and American astronauts needed special writing utensils to write in space.  The legend goes that the Americans spent boatloads of money on developing such a product, while the Soviets just used pencils.  In reality, while pencils were used, their graphite dust and point shards can be dangerous in zero gravity.  The Fisher Space Pen Company received no money from NASA, or even outright encouragement, but developed a product that they later convinced NASA to try.  The need came first, and then the product answer.

How can reverse engineering help your company?  What’s a new way for you to move forward?  At refine+focus, we’re committed to all the ways of helping you succeed.  Tell us where you want to go.  It’s our business to get you there.