Goodyear stays the course

'The funny bald guy.'...

‘The funny bald guy.’

That, according to ad tracking research, is the image that comes to mind when listeners recall Goodyear Canada’s long-running radio campaign.

For a decade now, the Etobicoke, Ont.-based tire manufacturer has featured the same corporate spokesperson – the ‘funny bald guy’ played by funny bald actor Thom Sharp – in all its advertising.

Mild-mannered and deeply befuddled, Sharp’s Goodyear guy character first came to prominence on television. But it’s on radio that he has really shown his stuff.

Goodyear makes minimal use of TV, producing no more than two spots annually. Radio is the primary medium: The company airs 40 or more different radio spots starring Sharp’s character every year.

You’d think that after a decade of running with the same basic campaign in radio, Goodyear would be primed for a change of direction. But neither the manufacturer nor its agency, Toronto-based Due North Communications, has any plan to retire the funny bald guy in the near future.

‘It has done extremely well for [Goodyear],’ says Karen Howe, the agency’s creative director.

Brand awareness and sales, she notes, have remained consistently on target. ‘So there’s no reason to change it, when it has done so phenomenally well, and there’s so much equity in Thom Sharp as a spokesman. If it wasn’t doing well, we would certainly look at changing it… But you have to be smart enough to understand a great thing when you’ve got it, and to stay the course.’

Goodyear spots air heavily across the country during the peak tire-buying seasons: spring and fall.

While advertisers tend to think of radio as a purely tactical medium, Goodyear has got a lot of brand-building mileage out of it – thanks mainly to the popularity of its spokesperson, says Due North director of client services Jill King.

King says the client has opted for radio as primary medium mainly because it provides the flexibility necessary to make different offers in various regions of the country – something that would be prohibitively expensive on TV.

Tracking has shown that Goodyear’s radio campaign generates awareness levels comparable to its TV work. And that, King contends, is because the spots do something too few other radio campaigns bother to do – they reward the listeners, offering a measure of entertainment value in return for their time and attention.

Consider the spot produced for this fall’s Halloween season, in which Sharp’s Goodyear guy goes trick-or-treating dressed as a giant tire. He’s proud of his costume, and can’t understand why the children at each house he visits seem so terrified. Finally, he gets the compliment he’s been craving: Someone tells him that the costume is ‘almost perfect.’ Almost? Well, it seems he’s a little early for Halloween.

Another spot features Sharp boasting about the new set of wheels he just bought from his brother-in-law for the rugged winter months. Sure, she’s a little slow, he says. But she handles ice like a charm. And well she might. As it turns out, the vehicle – which he thinks might be a Lada – is actually a Zamboni.

‘The joke is always on him, not on the brand,’ says King. That, in fact, is one of the constants of the decade-long campaign: While the character is always somehow out of place, the offer never is.

King says the Goodyear radio spots have a consistent rhythm – a careful blending of silliness with a focused product message – that makes them easily recognizable.

Much of the credit for that, she adds, belongs to Sharp, who has a background in both advertising and stand-up comedy, and who frequently ad libs much of what ends up on air.

Sharp was first brought into the picture 10 years ago, for a TV and radio campaign promoting Goodyear’s retail outlets. His character proved so popular that he soon began to appear in the company’s product ads as well. Today, all Goodyear advertising – from point-of-sale materials to business-to-business communications – feature Sharp’s Goodyear guy.

A long-running campaign like the Goodyear radio is something of a rarity in the business today. Few advertisers, it seems, can resist the urge to tinker with a creative strategy in the name of ‘freshness.’ But Howe says this campaign has enjoyed consistent support at all levels within the Goodyear organization.

‘It’s highly unusual in that,’ she says. ‘It takes a brave thinker to stay the course when the temptation is to stray.’

Of course, there’s another reason more campaigns don’t enjoy a longer life span. As Terry O’Reilly, a partner with Toronto-based Pirate Radio & Television, points out, few advertisers find it easy to maintain a consistent level of quality over a number of years. ‘It’s so hard to keep doing it well,’ he says.

O’Reilly, who has been handling production of the Goodyear spots for close to a decade, says the keys to this campaign’s longevity have been solid writing and Sharp’s innate sense of comic timing – coupled, of course, with the client’s ‘if it ain’t broke’ philosophy.

Howe, for her part, says the campaign stands out in part because it’s surrounded on the airwaves by so much bad advertising. Agencies, she contends, rarely commit serious effort to radio, preferring to dump assignments on junior teams. And few creatives are clamouring for a chance to work in the medium.

‘A lot of writers are intimidated by radio,’ she says. ‘It’s not an easy thing to write. [And] it’s just not considered glamourous.’

O’Reilly agrees. Radio, he says, is the toughest medium to write for – and agencies should spend more time helping copywriters develop the necessary skills.

‘There should be more mentoring in the medium,’ he says. ‘Young writers should be taught the ropes.’

Sidebar: Write Stuff

So who are Canada’s best writers in the under-appreciated medium of radio? Strategy put the question to some industry insiders. Here are their nominees:

• Peter Byrne, chief creative officer, Bensimon*Byrne D’Arcy, Toronto. Notable work: TSN, Casey House.

• Marta Cutler, executive vice-president, national co-creative director, MacLaren McCann, Toronto. Notable work: British Airways, Volkswagen, Life Network.

• David Gee, writer, Due North Communications, Toronto. Notable work: Goodyear Canada.

• Andrew Morgan, writer, Marketel, Montreal. Notable work: Air Canada, Loto-Quebec, Chrysler Dealers of Quebec.

• Terry O’Reilly, partner Pirate Radio & Television, Toronto.

• David Rosenberg, senior vice-president, creative director, Bensimon*Byrne D’Arcy, Toronto. Notable Work: Ikea, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, Nike, Rapid Lube, Zellers.

• Ron Thomson, writer, Cossette Communication-Marketing, Toronto. Notable work: Nike, PetroCanada, Parent HelpLine, Bell Sympatico High-Speed Service.

Sidebar: The joke’s on Thom

‘Ride Bareback’

(Farm animal SFX, clucking, pig grunting, etc.)

Thom: I have spent the entire day here talking farm tires and stuff with Farmer Bates.

Farmer Bates: (weary) Hello.

Thom: He’ll tell you I’m a old farmhand at heart, from way back.

Farmer: Funny, another name sprang to mind…

(Chicken squawk!!!)

Thom: Whoa. That is a fine-looking goat you got there..

Farmer Bates: (corrects him) You mean chicken….

Thom: Ahh chicken, right, yah….your turkeys are looking good, too, very plump….

(SFX of grunting pig)

Farmer: Those are pigs.

Thom: Really.

Anncr: At Fountain Tire get a $65 rebate on rear farm radials and a $35 rebate on rear farm bias tires. Earn TRIPLE Air Miles reward miles, too

Thom: Mind if I ride bareback?

Farmer Bates: I don’t think you….

Thom: Whoaa!

(SFX of jumping on a horse and animal snorts)

Anncr: The owners run the store, so you get the best service possible!

Thom: This horse handles like a dream….

Farmer Bates: But…

Thom: Beautiful black0-and-white coat.. Palomino?

Farmer: No it’s a…

Thom: Wait, wait, wait…let me guess….an Appaloosa?

Farmer: Actually ….

(Outraged MOO!!!)

Farmer Bates: It’s a Holstein

Thom: Close!

Anncr: TRIPLE Air Miles plus a $65 rebate on rear farm radials and a $35 rebate on rear farm bias tires. But hurry, offer ends December 31st.

Thom: Maybe these animals should wear name tags.

Farmer: Or not.

Anncr: Fountain Tire, home of the tire experts..and a

whole lot more!

Also in this report:

- Caught in the Web: Faced with Internet-only competitors, Canada’s conventional broadcasters are taking their brands online p.23