Robertson to the Rescue!

Lurking in all of us is a soft spot for superheroes and the underdog. So when a geeky, fortysomething man sporting a big, green bottle costume and a venturesome personality suddenly appears on the TV screen, honestly, what's not to love?

Lurking in all of us is a soft spot for superheroes and the underdog. So when a geeky, fortysomething man sporting a big, green bottle costume and a venturesome personality suddenly appears on the TV screen, honestly, what’s not to love?

It’s a premise that’s worked surprisingly well for Listerine Canada and its Action Hero guy. The five-year-old campaign – a far cry from the straight-laced American ads – has won awards, increased sales, added a bit of splash to a once stodgy brand, and launched a mini soap opera that’s recently seen bottle guy pick up a couple of sidekicks (toothbrush guy, and just this summer, floss guy).

From serious and medical to campy and funny, the dramatic change of brand positioning should have been a gamble, no?

‘Actually it was pretty low risk because Listerine’s brand image was pretty cold and a bit authoritative with serious-looking guys in lab coats walking around teeth,’ says Dean Hore, a VP associate CD at J. Walter Thompson, in Toronto, who has worked on the spots from day one. ‘We were never defaming the brand, really. It was our delivery of the message that changed.’ That, and the man behind the brand.

When Hore and the team presented a slightly deluded character who believed that Listerine made the mouthwash an action hero – complete with nemesis, of course – Graham Robertson, Listerine’s category manager at the time, simply loved the idea.

Sure, it tested well, and today Robertson gives all the right marketing-speak to explain why he gave the spots the green light. (‘[The idea] had all the brand assets.’ ‘We thought the brand would connect with consumers.’) But the real answer is likely found in understanding a bit about Robertson himself.

Now group marketing director for oral care and allergy at Pfizer, Robertson, 38, has defined his 10-year career by creating campaigns that are larger than life. ‘My own style of advertising is [based] on icons and figures,’ he says. ‘It’s the classic kind ofadvertising that gets into the consumer’s mind.’ Along with the action figure characters, Robertson was behind the successful launch of Listerine PocketPaks and the Reactine truck ads – both were over the top, memorable and profitable.

‘Advertising has to be big,’ says Robertson. ‘My own personal bias is to look at how movies are marketed and how we can take that down to a brand – not allow it to become wallpaper but rather jump through the TV set.’

It’s a philosophy the Ottawa native started to hone after graduating from Western’s MBA program in 1994. Immediately drawn to advertising, his first job was as an associate brand manager with General Mills working on kid’s cereals Trix, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. He then moved to Reckitt Benckiser where he was brand manager of Electrosol Tabs, a dishwashing tablet he launched in 1997 into a category he says was ‘sleepy’ and where the ‘last big innovation was probably in 1941.’ He went for splashy – running with the name Tab ’97 to push a high-tech feel to marketing.

Later that year, he moved to the Listerine account with Warner Lambert, which would eventually merge with Pfizer in 2000; Action Hero was launched in 1999 when Listerine had 35% market share. Last July it was 49%. PocketPaks’ female action hero – seemingly a distant relative of bottle guy – was unveiled in 2000 and had a solid three-year run.

Now, modeled after The Apprentice, the company has introduced the ‘Breath for Success’ campaign, a more ‘situational’ ad that stars a young go-getter trapped in an elevator with his boss. Since the campaign’s launch in February, market share has climbed to 20% from 6%.

Robertson says part of the problem with advertising today is that the constant turnover of brand managers doesn’t allow for long-term thinking when creating campaigns.’In this industry we should be thinking five years minimum. We shouldn’t do this one-year deal,’ he says, adding that brand managers need to know when to stick with a campaign that’s working.

For Robertson, who some consider a bit of a maverick with an unmistakable love of pop culture, good usually means big.

‘He’s a real character. He’s sort of a larger than life guy,’ says Hore. ‘He seemed to be trying to do something different, and he’s like that as a person as well. He wanted advertising that would make him famous too, probably…because he was working on a famous brand. He wanted [Action Hero] to reflect that.’ And there are glimpses of that desire from Robertson himself.

‘It’s pretty simple to describe what you do,’ he says. ‘You tell people you did the Listerine guy and they say, ‘oh yeah’, so that makes it fun.

‘Who knows, maybe he’ll be on for 40 years,’ he laughs. ‘Five years so far, 35 to go.’