Milk’s emotional build peaks in Quebec

When people say they don't like advertising, they're not talking about Quebec's milk campaign. Over a period of three years, it charmed Quebecers to the point where they're clamouring for both a CD featuring music from the spots and a book that pays tribute to its cool white imagery.

When people say they don’t like advertising, they’re not talking about Quebec’s milk campaign. Over a period of three years, it charmed Quebecers to the point where they’re clamouring for both a CD featuring music from the spots and a book that pays tribute to its cool white imagery.

It all began back in 1997, when Nicole Dubé of la Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec realized she faced an aging demographic and saw the writing on the wall. Youngsters, the prime target for Quebec’s milk producers, were growing up and leaving milk. As a result, she was looking at a projected 5% decrease. The FPLQ needed to encourage older people to drink milk, just to break even.

So Dubé, FPLQ’s advertising director, launched a landmark evocative advertising campaign, using classic French songs, that earned a spectacular 90% approval rating this year. Not only did the FPLQ successfully maintain market share (by volume, 600,000 litres a year), it managed to really strike an emotional chord.

Showered with numerous awards and honours, Dubé, the FPLQ and its advertising agency, BBDO Montréal (formerly PNMD), have also won the respect of the Montreal marketing community. Some are even comparing the ‘Jamias sans mon lait’ (‘Never without my milk’) campaign to the Marlboro Man when it comes to longevity of a single idea. After three years of variations on a theme, ‘le lait’ definitely has legs.

It didn’t start out all that well. Dubé recalls the less-than-ecstatic public reaction to a 1997 Christmas commercial that (unintentionally) took the image of Santa Claus in vain.

Playing on the tradition of leaving milk and cookies for the generous gent, the spot sees Santa so disappointed when there isn’t any milk to go with his cookies that he takes back all the gifts. ‘You can’t imagine how many calls I got,’ says Dubé.

After pulling the ad off the air and pulling up her socks, Dubé changed creative teams at BBDO, and the new group faced the core demographic challenge head on. Their new target: 30+.

Dubé describes the goals of the campaign: ‘I wanted it to be closer to the people, to appeal to any age group, and to promote milk as their principle beverage. People drink more milk when they’re young, but I wanted them to continue to drink milk all their life.’

But how?

She spurned the fun lifestyle approach: ‘For many years, advertisers were focusing on fun [to sell a product]. Everybody was always laughing and having fun. We wanted to be different.’

She also nixed the health message, at least for TV: ‘People know milk is good for health, they know that.’ As friend and colleague Roger Sirard says, ‘With a lot of competition – colas, juices, whatever – to say ‘It’s good for you’ is not enough to increase volume.’

So the idea of linking milk with beloved, classic French songs by such famous international artists as Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf was born.

Sirard, VP of the Montreal branch of the Association of Canadian Advertisers, was impressed with the new direction Dubé chose: ‘Instead of going on the rational side, she went on the emotional side.’

‘We said the better way to reach adults is to try to give them something to remember, to give them a souvenir,’ explains Dubé. ‘Remembering a song is the best way, a song they were singing when they were young.’

For their first campaign in September 1998, four new TV spots were unveiled, each artfully interpreting the theme of a different time-honoured song. Pour vivre ensemble (To live together), the 1972 hit by the late Frida Boccara, was the audio for one spot, which showed all types of people – young, old, male, female – harmoniously dunking their different cookies into milk.

Another spot took a cue from the 1967 song, Je reviens te chercher (I’m Coming Back to Find You) by Gilbert Bécaud. That one depicted a man in a supermarket with a box of cereal in a cart, searching for milk to go with it.

The music is powerful, but the visual is key to the success of the commercials, says Dubé. The look is pristine and pure, simple white-on-white, reflecting milk itself.

‘There’s a lot of white space,’ says Martin Beauvais, VP and creative director at BBDO, who recalls the concept starting out as a print proposal with white backgrounds. When she saw it, Dubé wondered whether it could be successfully translated to TV.

It could and it was, by Beauvais, who provided the art direction, along with Stéphane Charier, the copywriter and Jean-Michel Ravon, the director.

Beauvais admires Dubé’s product knowledge, which is considerable after being with la Fédération for 16 years. This, he says, translates into an intuitive style. ‘She’s a yes and no person… no equivocating.’

There was no equivocating when post analysis of year one revealed an appreciation level of 82%, the average being 69%. She decided to continue the campaign.

Year two featured one of the campaign’s most popular singers, who goes by the simple stage name of Adamo. His song, C’est ma vie (This is My Life), traced a man’s history of drinking milk through all the important stages, from childhood, to getting married, to having a baby of his own – who drinks milk.

The commercial was so popular, concert promoters brought Adamo, now in his 60s, from his native Belgium to Montreal for a concert this past April. On stage, the singer made a point of thanking Dubé and the FPLQ for his resurgent success.

The second year also featured the song Maman la plus belle du monde (Mama, the Nicest in the World). In this spot, Luis Mariano sings his appreciation of his mother, while visually, a young adult dreams of the chocolate cake his mother used to make, which went so well with milk.

The spots were tested again, this time earning an 88% appreciation level. In year three, Dubé followed the same schedule, a 13-week campaign beginning September 2000 and a second cycle starting January 2001.

This time, she used Piaf’s personal anthem, Non, je ne regrette rien (No, I Don’t Regret a Thing), along with the teasing, playful song Pour un flirt, by Michel Delpech and the very famous 1945 Charles Trenet song La mer (The Sea). The latter spot featured a sea of white. As the camera pulls out, it looks like a gingerbread man swimming. Pull out further and the audience can see a child dunking his gingerbread into a glass of milk.

By year three, the appreciation rate soared to 90%. The bonus was that the ads were also attracting young people who were discovering the songs for the first time.

Sirard says the numbers were so unexpectedly high, the campaign ‘busted the measurements.’ So unbelievable were they, in fact, that the FPLQ’s research firm, Decarie & Complices, is currently revisiting its methodology to ensure the numbers are accurate.

The fourth campaign is launching this September. Dubé won’t divulge details of the coming effort, except for revealing that for the first time, one of the spots will be in English, featuring a retro English hit.

As did the mean Santa execution, the last execution saw Dubé receiving a lot of calls, but this time people were raving about the songs, and asking where they could buy them. ‘Everybody laughed,’ she says of her board meeting with Quebec’s milk producers, when she posed the idea of producing a CD. ‘Well that’s nice but we’re selling milk, not CDs,’ was the initial response, but they went for it. So far the CD has gone almost double platinum, selling close to 200,000 copies – an amazing feat for the French language market.

‘It’s an interesting new medium to use,’ says Dubé. The cover of the CD simply features a glass of milk against a white background.

Milk ads have made such an impression in Quebec that Dubé even produced a book, Je me souviens du lait, published by Info Presse, celebrating 25 years of milk marketing with AOR BBDO Montréal. It’s got to be one of the longest client-agency associations in Canada, says Beauvais.

Awards add further lustre to the campaign. So far, the Publicité Club de Montréal awards, Les Coqs d’Or, have seen 14 prizes presented for the campaign. The first year, the creators received five Coqs – one gold and four silver. The second year, they received one gold and this year, they received eight – three gold, three silver and two bronze.

Before a dinner of 600 people this past May, Dubé was the first woman to be named ‘Personnalité Marketing 2001′ by the Association Marketing de Montréal. In February, she was pronounced ‘La Personnalité de la semaine’ by La Presse. And now she – and her team – get Strategy’s nod, as well.