Packaged goods ads get more ‘emotional’

A woman pulls a fluffy, clean towel from the laundry basket and does one of two things: caresses her cheek with its cottony softness or inhales deeply to indulge in its fresh scent. For decades, this was the standard laundry commercial. However, in recent years, packaged goods marketers have moved toward more insightful, emotional ad campaigns, and the trend - which some players have been quicker to adopt than others - isn't just prevalent in detergents, but has popped up in a breadth of categories, from cleaning products to foods.

A woman pulls a fluffy, clean towel from the laundry basket and does one of two things: caresses her cheek with its cottony softness or inhales deeply to indulge in its fresh scent. For decades, this was the standard laundry commercial. However, in recent years, packaged goods marketers have moved toward more insightful, emotional ad campaigns, and the trend – which some players have been quicker to adopt than others – isn’t just prevalent in detergents, but has popped up in a breadth of categories, from cleaning products to foods.

According to Ken Wong, strategic marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., a couple of examples have led the way in Canada: the Pine-Sol work from Vancouver-based shop Palmer Jarvis DDB – in particular the ad where a boy is urinating but misses the toilet – and Unilever’s Sunlight Get Dirty effort, originally produced by Toronto agency Ammirati Puris.

‘At the end of the day, it’s still about a consumer insight and finding a novel, interesting way to present it,’ he says, adding that the development has been fueled, in part, by escalating competition and the fact that it’s harder to distinguish a brand via product attributes. After all, there’s only so far you can go with the ‘whiter than white’ approaches used in the past. ‘If you think about something like a detergent, it’s pretty hard to constantly innovate and maintain a significant advantage. Because we know brand equity is important and profitable, if you can’t source it in product, you have to source it in message or packaging.’

Wong believes the rising influence of private-label companies has also been a drain on mainstream brands. Indeed, according to JP Morgan Securities and ACNielsen, private-label sales surged by 25% to 35% (depending on the category) in the U.S. for the 13 weeks ended March 24/01, compared with the same period in 2000. Says Wong: ‘Since private-label competes on ‘we’re just as good as, but a lot cheaper,’ it takes away from your product message, doesn’t it?’

Alan Middleton, associate professor of marketing, Schulich School of Business at Toronto’s York University, describes the ’80s and ’90s as a ‘period of uptightness’ for packaged goods firms.

Middleton believes this was precipitated by a slowdown in growth of key categories, like cleaning products, due to the fact that North America’s population was stagnant, save for immigration.

‘Where you’re fighting for share and the market isn’t growing aggressively, there’s a tendency for advertisers, wrongly, to get cautious and over-conservative as they think about the use of advertising,’ he explains.

But at the turn of the century, business pressures from shareholders and financial analysts demanded better results, ‘which means ‘I’d better use advertising as a more direct or creative force than ever before,” says Middleton, who also cites Toronto-based Unilever, as well as Kraft, with its four-year-old Kraft Dinner campaign, as standouts in the Canadian marketplace.

Certainly Kraft Foods North America enjoyed a volume increase in ‘cheeses, meals and enhancers’ of 8.3% in 2001 over 2000, a number partially boosted by higher shipments of mac & cheese, according to the company’s latest annual report.

In Toronto, a new spot for KD will air in early August that senior product manager Chris McClement says will represent a bit of a departure for the brand: whereas previous advertising leveraged product characteristics, this focuses on children’s emotional bonds with the meal. (J. Walter Thompson’s latest work for KD was a gross-out ad for its spin-off Easy Mac called ‘Moving Day,’ which depicted a desperate guy using a fishbowl to make the meal while in his car.)

‘We found out that for kids, they love the KD experience, because when they eat it their moms leave them alone,’ says McClement. ‘For them, it’s quite empowering. The new ad celebrates that in a fun way.’

McClement says Kraft is able to push the envelope with KD in part because of its distinctive nature – it’s a brand where you don’t have to talk about its functional benefits. ‘It’s one of those brands that, at some point in your life, you have a story about it. So we’re able to go out and really entertain our customer.’

But KD isn’t the only Kraft property with a quirky personality, as the mint candy Altoids is marketed by the firm’s Callard & Bowser-Suchard unit. South of the border, the first spot in seven years for its hard candy, Altoids Sours (unavailable in Canada), launches in August. The ad has a retro feel, with a voice-over reminiscent of grade school sex-ed films. One boy at a party dances while clutching grapefruits, while another has Altoids Sours in his grip. Guess who gets all the girls? Hint: not the boy who sprays grapefruit juice in their eyes.

It’s the depth of Kraft’s portfolio, and its inclusion of smaller and start-up brands, that fosters an entrepreneurial spirit at Kraft, says Fred Schaeffer, VP of strategy and growth. ‘We know that [smaller] companies can have a huge impact if lethargic, big companies sit back,’ he says. ‘We try not to do that, and if you look at our portfolio, we have small, upstart [brands] that are dynamic, like Lunchables,’ he says. ‘The worst thing you can do is sit back and not react to changes in the marketplace.’

Schaeffer adds that a long-term relationship with JWT and other Kraft agencies ensures continuity. ‘You’re not changing from campaign to campaign; it’s not the message du jour. And from a relationship standpoint, if you hit a bump in the road, you’re committed to working through them.’

Unilever has also proven itself to be bold, for instance getting risky with the North American launch of Axe, a male deodorant body spray, which has been on the European market for almost two decades now.

Interestingly, the company’s objectives for the fragrance, set to target the rapidly ballooning US$7.7-billion male grooming segment, is not solely to become the best young-guy deodorant brand on the market, but to benchmark itself against the big guns – names like Nike, Playstation and Levi’s – according to Michael Alexandor, category director at Unilever. In fact, Alexandor reports that, in the U.K., where Axe is known as Lynx, 59% of young men ranked the spray as the brand ‘for them’ in 2000.

The advertising around Lynx/Axe, which has nabbed its share of Gold Lions in the past, is arguably the best example of Unilever’s audacity on a global advertising scale.

For instance, in one spot created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London, a geeky guy has a daydream: He’s out with a hot woman who, of course, adores him. He wakes up, rather reluctantly, when his current girlfriend calls out to him. At this point, viewers find out that his partner is none other than Jennifer Aniston, far from the homely female you’d expect. Aniston calls out, ‘I ironed your shirt for you. Do we have to go out tonight?’

A second spot, known as ‘The Ideal Women,’ has a series of beauties making outrageous statements, such as ‘How nice! You noticed my breasts!’ and ‘Of course you can have some money for a lap dance.’

‘Unilever just wants to connect with consumers,’ explains Alexandor, who adds that some of the Lynx work will be adapted for the Canadian marketplace. ‘There’s a basic belief [at the company] that you have to be bold and take risks because there’s a lot of noise out there. If you don’t, you’ll blend in too much.’

Along with the Sunlight campaign, Unilever has shown its ‘wild’ side in North America with work for Hellmann’s mayonnaise, after dropping its staid ‘Bring out the Hellmann’s, bring out the best’ tagline and replacing it with ‘Find a little pleasure in the every day,’ earlier this year.

A recent ad, from Interpublic Group’s Lowe New York, for instance, has a group of women, presumably at a stagette, who totally ignore their hunky male strippers, because they are too busy enjoying Hellmann’s as a dip.

And in May, J.Walter Thompson New York, introduced an ad for the firm’s Ragu Robusto! property that shows people sucking down spaghetti in the streets.

Says Mike Welling, VP brand development, foods at Unilever Canada: ‘Our internal credo is ‘the heart of a small company and the muscle of a big company’ which means we focus on celebrating the virtues of a smaller, entrepreneurial enterprise with the resources that only a large organization can provide.’

Even predictable packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble has begun to inch away from its ‘tedious, totally predictable wallpaper to quite creative, well-honed communications,’ says Middleton, who cites the recent Pampers commercial, featuring Rod Stewart’s ‘Forever Young’ and heartstring-tugging images of baby animals and their moms, as an example. ‘I found it very interesting in that they were touching people emotionally about the brand in a way they hadn’t done before.’

Last fall, Leo Burnett, the Toronto AOR for P&G’s Cheer brand, aired an ad for the detergent starring a woman and man flirting in a laundromat. To her embarrassment, the female character takes a big spill, while the voiceover declares: ‘With the help of new Cheer, your colours will look bright. Even in moments when you don’t.’

According to chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, Judy John, the brand will continue to up the ante creatively. ‘The way to break through is to speak to the target differently,’ she says.

Meanwhile, in mid-July, Leo Burnett’s Chicago office introduced a new serial campaign for P&G’s Secret deodorant brand that drops the old tagline, ‘Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.’ Each ad portrays the same couple in various life-changing scenarios and each one also relates to a specific emotion. For instance, in one ad, the man is trying to encourage his partner to ask for a raise at work, while onscreen text reads: ‘Nervous? Keep it Secret.’

For his part, Wong suggests marketers must strive to stay ahead of the curve, even as zany advertising becomes the norm. ‘The problem is that success breeds imitation, and if everybody starts turning down this route it may not work as effectively.’