Extreme behaviour

There was never much doubt that the spot would prompt a few complaints. Consider, after all, the content: A teen skateboarder pulls a daredevil move, balancing precariously on the railing of a school stairway, only to wipe out spectacularly - an...

There was never much doubt that the spot would prompt a few complaints. Consider, after all, the content: A teen skateboarder pulls a daredevil move, balancing precariously on the railing of a school stairway, only to wipe out spectacularly – an off-screen tumble accompanied by a suitably gruesome assortment of fragile-human-body-hitting-polished-concrete-surface sound effects.

What surprised Caroline Jarvis, however, was the focus of those complaints. Was it the depiction of recklessly unsafe behaviour? Or the invitation to laugh uproariously at an innocent youngster suffering grievous bodily harm? Nah.

‘It had nothing to do with the kid hurting himself,’ says Jarvis, vice-president and creative director with Saint-Jacques Vallee Young & Rubicam, the Montreal-based agency that created this spot for the Cordon Bleu brand of canned meatball stews. ‘The complaints were about vandalism of public property. I guess it bothered people that the kid was scraping the railings.’

Granted, this isn’t quite the response that the Cordon Bleu marketing team had in mind. Still, it is evidence that the spot got noticed – and when you’re a 66-year-old brand trying to shake some of the dust from your image, getting noticed is at least half the battle.

The name may not mean much in English Canada, but to Quebecers, Cordon Bleu is part of the very cultural fabric. ‘Just about everybody who’s alive in this province today was served these products as they were growing up,’ says Marcel Proulx, vice-president of creative planning and consumer insights with SVY&R. ‘It is a true Quebec brand.’

Produced by the family-owned J.R. Ouimet firm of Anjou, Que., the Cordon Bleu product line encompasses meatball stews, sauces, patés and a wide variety of other canned foods – all based on traditional Quebec recipes. While the brand has long dominated the categories in which it competes, it was clear by the mid-1990s that its fortunes had begun to decline.

Sales were sliding precipitously, says Michelle Guibord, director of marketing with J.R. Ouimet, and the brand image was all but stagnant. ‘We saw a need to redynamize the brand, and to get to know our consumers better,’ she says. ‘We had to understand their needs, and give them what they were asking for.’

Since 1996, Guibord says, J.R. Ouimet has realigned its marketing approach dramatically, shifting from its traditional emphasis on tactical efforts toward more of a brand-driven strategy, and launching close to 20 new products into the marketplace.

The company has also invested heavily in research, to gain deeper insight into the targets for its various products. And it was this process that led to the bone-crunching skateboarding spot – Cordon Bleu’s first serious venture into the murky and treacherous waters of youth marketing.

When it came to the Cordon Bleu line of meatball-and-pasta stews, the research highlighted an important point: While the primary purchasers are mothers – typically those of average income or slightly below – the actual end users are, predominantly, teenagers.

That makes a certain amount of sense, says Suzanne Bourret, vice-president, client services and human resources with SVY&R. Simple heat-and-serve products like these are the perfect meal solution for today’s teens, who live their lives on the go, careening from hockey practice to school to the mall.

Given the kind of influence that youngsters now wield over household purchase decisions, it seemed logical to aim the advertising for Cordon Bleu’s meatball products directly at the teen audience. The marketing team, however, was also aware that a great many other advertisers are vying for the attention of young consumers these days. How to be heard above the clamour?

The key, says Proulx, is to create advertising that establishes an emotional link with teens by mirroring their own lives.

‘It’s important not to do an ad that gives the feeling of adults talking to kids,’ he explains. ‘You should be reflecting a slice of life back to them, thereby making a strong connection between the brand and the consumer’s life. You create a dialogue by reflecting the things they have to live with every day.’

Bourret agrees. ‘It really comes down to speaking their language,’ she says. ‘You create empathy by putting yourself in their shoes, and touching their sensitive chords. You put the product in a context that’s relevant to them – that’s what creates a distinction.’

In this case, the agency proposed tapping the reckless attitude that prevails increasingly among teens today – as evidenced by the popularity of skateboarding, snowboarding and other ‘extreme’ pastimes. Inspiration for this approach came, in part, from a Montreal skateboard shop called Factory, where patrons proudly bring in X-rays of their broken bones to be pinned up on the wall.

Ultimately, this thinking led to the 30-second commercial entitled ‘The Take-Off.’ Shot to resemble video footage from a security camera, the spot catches its young hero in action, zipping through the deserted school corridors on his board and pulling off a couple of nifty trick moves, before plummeting painfully down the stairs. A voiceover extols the virtues of Cordon Bleu’s meatball stews (‘Great for high flyers, and those more grounded’) and concludes with the tagline, ‘Good cuisine made quick.’

Jarvis says the agency pointedly steered clear of the flashy visuals, fast cutting and skewed camera angles that characterize so much TV advertising for the youth audience, using instead a single stationary camera to capture the action.

‘We could very easily have turned it into a rock video,’ she says. ‘But that’s passé for this audience. So the idea was to make it very simple and understated, which would help project a certain coolness.’

‘It had to be in line with the brand personality,’ Bourret adds. ‘And Cordon Bleu is a brand that stands for authenticity. It is very simple, down to earth and without pretension. So what we tried to do was to build on that with a very simple, bold concept.’

The spot ran throughout the fall of 1999, and has been airing again this spring, with a promotional tag. In addition, SVY&R was responsible for creating a second TV commercial to support a hockey-themed promotion, which wrapped up just before Christmas.

The irreverent tone of this spot was in keeping with ‘The Take-Off.’ It opened with a teen racing down the corridors of an ice rink, past posters advertising the contest. Use of ‘security cam’ footage helped to lend a sense of continuity with the skateboarding spot.

Upon entering the dressing room, our young hero zips open his hockey bag, only to be overcome by the toxic fumes emanating from within. (Yes, sweaty hockey equipment was one of the prevailing motifs in Canadian advertising last year.)

Preliminary results suggest that all of these efforts have paid off. According to Bourret, there has been significant improvement in household penetration of Cordon Bleu’s meatball products across Quebec.

As the brand continues to cultivate the youth market, one of the challenges will be finding ways to stay relevant, Proulx says.

‘Teens are complex human beings,’ he explains. ‘They’re in flux, forever changing. They’re still experimenting, still looking for themselves. So one day they act one way, the next day another. We have to understand that there isn’t just one way to speak to them.’

Targeting young consumers is just one of the items on Cordon Bleu’s list of priorities for the coming year. Bourret says the ongoing effort to rejuvenate the brand encompasses a number of activities – among them, expansion of its distribution in Ontario and the Atlantic Provinces. The brand’s visibility in these markets remains limited at best, and J.R. Ouimet would very much like to change that.

‘We’ve been successful over the past couple of years at consolidating the Cordon Bleu franchise,’ Bourret says. ‘But there’s still so much to do.’

Also in this report:

* Diesel pumps up the volume: Montreal agency reinvents itself, aided by an infusion of cash and the addition of an ad industry veteran p.B17

* Expos pitch grassroots love story: Woo cynical fans with winning spirit, community involvement p.B18

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group