Meme Team

Eyes on the youth prize

by Will Lindner

fuse0719At Fuse, Bill Carter (left), Issa Sawabini, and Brett Smith’s Winooski marketing company, youth is the focus.

Youth, we all know, is fleeting. Yet it’s an intense period of life — seemingly long while it lasts — and the shared experiences of young people in any generation create among them a unique identity. Because unlike adults, they haven’t known anything else.

Youth is an important demographic for businesses to reach. So Brett Smith, Bill Carter, Issa Sawabini, and their diverse staff of 48 employees at Fuse, a 22-year-old marketing agency in Winooski, work hard to discover inroads. Then they advise and assist clients who wish to make their products and services appealing to potential customers in their teens, 20s, and even early 30s.

Their watchword, featured often in their self-promotion, is “authenticity,” and their success in creating successful marketing strategies and product experiences for the companies that engage them is proven by an impressive roster and past and present clients. That list includes Amazon, Starbucks, TikTok, Zip Car, Puma, Frito-Lay, Bubly, and Quest Diagnostics; the largest client is Mountain Dew. Past clients include Ford, Gillette, and Harley-Davidson. Carter, who manages Fuse’s marketing and business development efforts, explains why brands like these seek them out

“Everyone knows that Harley-Davidson primarily sells motorcycles to men over the age of 50,” he says. “But they’ve got to find a way to circle back and get much younger consumers into their ecosystem, perhaps by developing new products or beginning at a cheaper price point, so they don’t have a consumer base that literally dies off at some point.”

For many of Fuse’s customers, however, the teen-to-20s demographic is their lifeblood. Amazon Prime Student (an offshoot of Amazon Prime that tailors the program’s digital content, streaming, and fast shipping to college students) is one of these.

Fuse developed a strategy employing targeted social media and content reflective of college lifestyle, recruited “brand ambassadors” at some 250 campuses, and produced events that provided the “Prime experience” to interested students. According to Fuse’s website, the campaign “tripled the social engagements [and] nearly doubled the reach of the social program. … Sign-up goals were achieved far ahead of schedule.”

Carter moved to Vermont in 1997 to join Brett Smith and Fuse’s founder, Theresa Jensen (who is no longer involved). He had spent some four years in New York City engaged in sports marketing and events marketing — now called “experiential” marketing. Carter explains that each generation is shaped by the dominant cultural forces of its time. For the current generation, he identifies stark financial realities that motivate them to seek an education without contracting crushing debt obligations.

Another trend is a passion for causes — social, environmental, or otherwise. Says Carter, “If you ask them what considerations they have when choosing between similar products, they’ll say, ‘I see Product A out there supporting causes I care about,’ and they’ll choose that.

“There are all these indicators in which you see this generation thinking differently, behaving differently. And because that’s always changing, there’s always a need for what we do to help brands understand what the focus is of young people and how to best connect with them.”

Michael Jager, cofounder and creative leader at Solidarity of Unbridled Labour (formerly JDK Design), a Burlington company focused on the design aspects of marketing, considers the social analysis and creative marketing response that Carter describes as an art, and says Fuse excels at it. The two firms collaborate frequently; JDK, in fact, helped design Fuse’s futuristic logo.

“One of the things I admire is their ability to maintain a feel for youth culture, and the pulse of that,” Jager says. “Bill, Brett, and Issa are incredibly skilled at it.”

He cites, too, their capacity for navigating intersections between event programming and marketing research and the shifting digital landscape. They work, he says, “at an intersection of diverse cultures, and they do it with incredible empathy.”

A domain where the young have it all over their elders — always have, always will — is sports. So it makes sense that Fuse had its origins there, in the 1990s when Smith and Carter were in their 20s. Smith, who grew up in New Hartford, New York, became a devotee of snowboarding when the sport was in its infancy. He competed in snowboarding in high school and college, where he founded Boston University’s snowboard team in 1993. He even took a break from his studies to try competitive snowboarding in California. After graduating with a degree in liberal arts (a geology major with study in psychology and computer science), he moved to Killington hoping to find a job that would provide him a free pass to the slopes.

“I never thought I would go into business,” he laughs. “As a teen and young adult I was pretty skeptical about corporate America.”

But discussions with the resort’s marketing director revealed that Smith had much to offer the resort, which was struggling to tap into the snowboarding market. It was a two-way street.

“I learned enough to get invited back and to be listened to, and I kind of fell in love with that,” he says. “I realized, ‘Wow! I can help influence the direction of a big company and help them be more authentic.’”

Smith worked at Killington for three years, and came to the attention of Theresa Jensen, who had an association with Burton Snowboards and in 1995, with backing from investors, started a company called Fuse Sports Marketing in Burlington. In 1996 Smith joined her, and a year later, Carter (who had met Smith through a mutual acquaintance) moved up from New York City. Carter and Smith soon took on the functional leadership of the fledgling company while Jensen stepped back into an investor role.

They consider this the first “iteration” of the present company. The second occurred with Sawabini’s introduction.

“We made a pretty big change, from focusing exclusively on marketing services for action sports like snowboarding, and broadened out to all marketing related to teenagers and young adults,” Carter explains.

“I joined in June 1999 as an intern,” says Sawabini, who, at 41, is the youngest of the partners. “I graduated from UVM and pretty much the next day began my internship. Then I was hired as an employee, focused on events, strategy, and consulting. Around 2000 we started growing quickly and I became head of the brand-strategy group.”

Smith and Carter had quickly identified Sawabini as a third partner. Excited and ambitious, the three began moving toward the ultimate transition of buying out Jensen and the investment group. That happened in 2004, the same year Sawabini’s partnership was formalized, and with it the name change to, simply, Fuse — a shortened title for a larger enterprise.

Around 10 years ago Fuse moved into its current location on West Canal St. in Winooski, in an old brick building formerly part of that city’s mill complex, tucked away in a quiet spot close to the river. It provides ample space, not just for the company’s several divisions, but also for an indoor exercise area that includes skateboard ramps.

That speaks to another part of the owners’ vision: rebranding Vermont itself, by demonstrating that Vermont can attract and retain talented, ambitious, young employees who want to work on a national scale yet live in a less hectic place with abundant recreational opportunities.

“We work extremely hard to make this the best place to work,” says Smith. “We provide free ski passes at the resorts for skiing and snowboarding. If it snows 12 inches or more we shut down in the morning so people can ski; and we have a Euro camper van that staff members can reserve for weekends.”

With amenities like these, and community-outreach efforts that support employees’ interests outside the workplace, Fuse has won recognition as one of the Best Places to Work in Vermont for nine consecutive years.

With Carter’s focusing on business development, Smith leads on internal matters like finance, legal and legislative issues, human resources, and technology. Sawabini has emerged as the company’s boots on the ground, overseeing, often in person, an immense array of services for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups.

Paul Ode, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC in Burlington, has provided specialized legal counsel to Fuse for some 15 years.

“From my vantage point,” he says, “it’s a remarkable partnership among the three of them, each with their own area of expertise. For such a hip, cool business, you might say they really run it well as a business. They’re very thoughtful about their strategies and decision-making.”

Though Sawabini is the only native Vermonter — he was born in Burlington, but his family moved to East Aurora in western New York when he was in kindergarten — all are immersed in a lifestyle consistent with the recreational passions of many of their customers.

Each is married: Sawabini with two children, a son, 4, and a daughter, 6; Smith with a 6-year-old son and daughters ages 9 and 11; and Carter (who grew up in Baltimore) with daughters 8 and 10 years old. They ski and/or snowboard with their families in the winter. Sawabini does volunteer work with the Vermont Mountain Bikers Association, and Carter and his family have a “tiny” camp on Malletts Bay where they fish and paddleboard. Smith, who still skateboards “a little” as he nears age 50, devotes much of his off-time to family and to community issues, including six years on the board of United Way.

By day, each of the partners “fuses” his personal interests in culture and sports with the interests of their clients, working hard to understand and interact with a demographic that’s always in flux, as people grow into and age out of it. It’s a pulse that changes, but never stops beating. •