Muller's Lee Rolston on getting consumers talking about the yoghurt category

Lee Rolston: marketing director of Muller
Lee Rolston: marketing director of Muller

Lee Rolston, marketing director of Muller, is proud of the brand's unusual latest TV advertising campaign. Interview by John Reynolds.

Whisper it: Lee Rolston, the Liverpudlian marketing director of Muller, has a bit of a thing for Manchester. In his teens, he 'went out in Manchester more than Liverpool'. He admits Manchester is home to his favourite bands, and, perhaps the biggest sacrilege of all, he has a respect for Man United.

All this from a man whose accent wouldn't be out of place on Brookside Close and can be found at weekends standing on the Kop, cheering on his beloved Liverpool FC.

'Don't print that,' says Rolston, his thick Liverpool accent stronger than ever, as he lists New Order and The Smiths among his favourite bands.

Liverpudlians and Mancunians tend to have a healthy disdain for one another, but then Rolston is a man who steers against the prevailing winds. This is neatly exemplified by Muller's latest TV campaign, which cocks a snook at those of most of its rivals.

'With most yoghurt ads, you know what it is going to be like before you see it,' says Roslton. 'It's likely to feature a farm, have a focus on provenance and, if it's an exotic brand, have a beautiful woman in it.'

Muller's TV ad, created by TBWA\London - perhaps taking its lead from Yeo Valley's 2010 'farmers rap' video - could be selling just about anything. The extravaganza features Knight Rider car KITT, the cartoon characters Yogi Bear and Mutley, and several Mr Men characters in a colourful mini-epic.

Rolston denies Muller has copied Yeo Valley. 'If anyone can plot a logic flow between rapping farmers in the countryside and Yogi, Mutley and the Mr Men larking around with KITT and splatting people with fruit, then I'm all ears.'

X Factor

However, there is one similarity with Yeo Valley. Muller's ad, like its rival's, was launched during The X Factor. The campaign also coincides with a packaging revamp across the Muller range, aimed to give the brand more prominence and 'make it more "talkable"'.

The making of the ad certainly brought its fair share of humorous moments, not least in discussions between the Muller team and the characters' licence-holders.

'I never thought I'd hear the phrases "we'll make Mutley's eyebrows less aggressive" and "we'll get the correct angle of bounce on Mr Bounce",' says Rolston.

The thinking behind the £20m campaign is that Muller had previously not lived up to its status as a top-six grocery brand. Rolston claims it should be mixing it with other top brands such as Coca-Cola, Warburtons and Cadbury.

'The aim of the campaign is to get consumers to sit up and take notice. Our challenge is that if you want to make a brand famous, you have to think about competition outside the sector,' says Rolston, who is able to draw on experience from his 14-year marketing career, which has included spells at InBev and Cadbury.

Slipping sales

Muller remains the nation's market-leading yoghurt brand, but its sales have slipped recently. Nonetheless, it has six brands among the top 20 yoghurt and pot desserts in the country, dominated by Muller Corner, which had sales of £228.7m in 2010, according to Nielsen.

However, the latter, along with sister brand Muller Light, suffered a sales dip in 2010. Then came the axing of its Stars children's range this summer, because of poorer than expected sales.

Both Muller and Rolston have a lot riding on this campaign, then. Yet the man who grew up on the Liverpool Riviera, aka the Wirral, has form when it comes to ground-breaking campaigns: he was involved in creating Cadbury's 'Gorilla' ad.

'When I first saw the "Gorilla" ad, I remember feeling elation, and that I had not seen anything like this before. It was a privilege to work on it.'

Rolston worked at Cadbury for three years, between 2007 and 2010. He was recruited by the man who took the plaudits for 'Gorilla', Phil Rumbol. They worked together at InBev, and Rumbol was impressed by what he saw.

While Rolston says he enjoyed his time at Cadbury, where he worked latterly as global brand director, the travelling involved took its toll.

'It was an experience and I learned huge amounts about different cultures and different stages of brand development, but I didn't feel the travel was particularly glamorous,' he says.

Cadbury offered Rolston a job on the Continent following its acquisition by Kraft, but living abroad did not appeal to him, particularly as he has two young children. His decision meant he was able to look around at brands he liked, with the aim of taking a step up the career ladder.

'Muller has always been a brand that I thought I would love to work on. I have some irrational connection to it and it was an opportunity for me to take a marketing director role,' he says.

From starting out in sales at InBev, Rolston has come a long way, making his mark in FMCG. He cites his work on 'epic' TV campaigns for Stella as among the highlights of his time at InBev.

'I was in my early 20s when I joined InBev. I had not been educated in the rational school of marketing before then; that was the best bit of learning I got there, as well as learning to confront challenges.'

Good work

As with any marketer worth his salt, Rolston is also happy to talk about other brands' ad campaigns, pointing to recent TV drives by Google and French Connection as examples of good work.

As an interviewee, Rolston takes a while to get going, partly because his youngest daughter, Dida, had kept him up the previous night; once into his stride, though, he is affable, knowledgeable and funny.

It appears his relationship with Muller's parent company, based in Germany, is arm's-length, which, according to Rolston, is ideal. Now in his late 30s, is he looking toward a future in management?

'I've got my hands full doing this,' he replies. 'I am a marketer at heart and that is my passion, but that is not to say I can't take it into bigger commercial roles.'

Just before Rolston leaves, Marketing asks about a recent pronouncement by Trevor Beattie, founding partner of Beattie McGuinness Bungay, that marketing campaigns today lack creativity.

Choosing his words carefully, Rolston says: 'I think there are two camps: there are a lot of people trying to embrace technology and be brave, and then there are those that choose to be conservative.'

There is little doubt that Rolston would put himself in the brave camp - particularly given the Liverpudlian's Mancunian sympathies.

INSIDE WORK

  • 1997-2007: Various marketing and advertising positions, AB InBev
  • 2007-2009: Director of marketing, Cadbury Dairy Milk
  • 2009-2010: Global brand director, Cadbury
  • 2010-present: Marketing director, Muller

OUTSIDE WORK

  • Favourite film: Lost in Translation
  • Favourite car: Audi
  • Favourite football team: Liverpool

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