Seminal ads continue to pay dividends

It's been likened to striking gold, and some even compare it to the quest for the Holy Grail. But while advertisers rarely face the hardship of the Knights of King Arthur (few have been run through with a sword and none...

It’s been likened to striking gold, and some even compare it to the quest for the Holy Grail. But while advertisers rarely face the hardship of the Knights of King Arthur (few have been run through with a sword and none ravaged by killer rabbits), coming up with that one ad that not only defines a brand but also becomes part of the culture is a rare accomplishment.

Think the 1971 ‘Hill Top’ spot for Coca-Cola or the British Airways global spot of the late 1980s, or Apple’s ’1984′ commercial – seminal spots that transcended advertising and actually became part of the cultural fabric. And in so doing, they elevated the status of their brands.

‘It’s not just a commercial message,’ says Bob Shanks, president of Roche Macaulay & Partners Advertising in Toronto. ‘It actually becomes part of what people talk about, or for that matter, in the case of the ‘Hill Top’ spot for Coke, what people hum. It gets under the skin.’

Such spots continue to pay dividends well into the future. Coke, for example, has returned over the years to ‘Hill Top’ in varying forms. There was ‘Hill Top Reunion’ in the 1990s. The soft drink maker ran the original McCann-Erickson spot this month during May sweeps on That ’70s Show. There was even an animated promotional spot last year featuring Betty Boop’s rendition of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.

Not bad for a single spot that ran 30 years ago.

The song was a top-selling single in its day, as well.

Jeff Shinozaki, group brand manager for Coke and Diet Coke at Toronto-based Coca-Cola Canada says he still sees consumers in focus groups who refer to ‘Hill Top’ as their favourite Coke ad.

‘There’s huge value there,’ he says. ‘That’s pretty powerful to have that impression on consumers after that long – let’s face it, it’s a 60-second ad.’

It was in this period, too, that a halo of authenticity rose around Coke thanks to the ‘It’s the Real Thing’ tagline. Over the years Coke has built a virtual franchise out of variations on that including ‘Coke is it’ (1982) and ‘You can’t beat the real thing’ (1990).

Another brand that managed the trick is Budweiser. Launched in 1876, Budweiser’s U.S. brewer Anheuser-Busch first introduced the tagline ‘King of Beers’ at the turn of the century. In 1979 the brewer consigned the line to its label and introduced ‘This Bud’s For You’ in its creative.

But, as any marketer will tell you, it’s hard to keep a good tagline down. Last year Palmer Jarvis DDB Downtown in Toronto revived ‘King of Beers,’ through outdoor creative using an upside-down bottle cap as a crown. The brand followed that up by launching a round of TV spots earlier this spring.

The cap-as-crown application is one that, despite a 100-year heritage, no one seems to have thought of until now.

‘Nobody can believe that it wasn’t thought of before,’ says Gino Cantalini, director of partner brands at Labatt, which brews Bud in Canada.

While ditching the ‘This Bud’s For You’ positioning in Canada was a hard choice, such decisions are made considerably easier when the change is a return to one of the oldest taglines in the book, Cantalini says.

‘It’s not brain surgery. Having consistent positioning, having clear positioning and having relevant positioning – that’s when you create equity. ‘King of Beers’ and ‘This Bud’s For You’ are both in the vernacular,’ he says.

‘If you can keep it fresh and relevant and use it on an ongoing basis and yet seem that you are talking to your customers in a contemporary way, that’s one of the strongest things in your arsenal.’

The need for long-term consistency provides a clue as to why it may be difficult to cite an abundance of similar examples from within Canada. To make a real mark, you need to have been around for a long time, and not many indigenous brands can make that claim. One that has, is Molson Canadian. It is not surprising, then, that Canadian has made the leap to cultural icon thanks to the ‘Rant.’

While Canadian has been brewed since 1959, Molson itself has been in existence as a brewer since 1789. It is, like Coke and Budweiser,

a brand that has a pretty good handle on who its consumer is, and vice versa.

This, says Shanks, adds the necessary credibility to a brand.

‘There are other brands that might want to do a ‘Hill Top’ spot, but at the end of the day the brand itself, where it’s starting from, doesn’t have the credibility.

‘Certainly Coke before it came up with the ‘Hill Top’ spot had years of building what that brand stood for and represented. ‘Hill Top’ was the icing on the cake,’ he says.

‘It’s understanding [where you're at in] the brand’s lifecycle [so you can] say, ‘You know what? Now is a good time to go out there. We can say this with credibility.’ ‘This Bud’s For You’ is another great example. If it were ‘This Bob’s Soda’s For You,’ forget it. You don’t have the credibility to pull it off.’

Bruce Philp, partner at Garneau Wurstlin Philp Brand Engineering in Toronto, says nearly all such ‘epoch-making’ spots also have the common distinction of boldly stepping outside the function of the product.

‘I don’t think there are too many classics that have anything to do with getting your socks whiter or more mileage out of your car. The classics always abstract the brand benefit to a higher plane in order to express it.’

For instance, both the Coke and British Airways spots were about bringing people together, he

points out.

‘Similarly, the original ‘Rant’ spot steps completely outside beer and into the character of the nation in an effort to own it,’ Philp says. ‘That is actually a necessary condition to making an ad like that.’

Of course making such spots is not without risk. While a successful execution can often turbo boost a brand, leaving its competition far behind, a failure can leave a brand looking just plain like a behind.

‘You step outside the product benefit in order to create one of these things and if you fail to replace that with an epoch-making statement, then all you’ve got is an ad with no product benefit. That’s a pretty bad thing to do,’ he says.

But when all the stars align, Philp says, ‘You make an ad that ceases to be marketing anymore and it becomes pure pop culture. That’s

the Grail.’

Another peril lies in the nearly overwhelming urge to try to repeat the success by producing a follow-up. However, consumers often meet these with scorn because any follow-up acknowledges that it was simply marketing and all you’re trying to do is sell product, Philp says.

‘The consumer is, I think, in this willing state of suspension of disbelief that this ad comes from a really sincere place and it’s really an authentic expression of what motivates the marketer,’ he says. ‘That authenticity is what opens the door for it to become culture.’

Such was the risk faced by Molson.

But rather than follow-up this year with ‘Rant II’ – a move that would have had the effect of diminishing the original, Philp says – the brewery altered course slightly and went more sentimental with its latest round of spots featuring immigrants saluting Canada.

‘A legitimate direction for Molson to have taken on the ‘Rant’ would have been to never do it again. I commend them for the way they handled it, but certainly an equally smart option would have been to say, ‘Jeez, this is just too good to try to repeat.’ ‘

Perhaps. But when you come up with something so rare it might be equally difficult to just bury it until some ad guy unearths it centuries hence.