Marketers enlist Mr T, Wombles, Paddington Bear and Mr Men for nostalgia campaigns

Paddington Bear & Marmite
Paddington Bear & Marmite

LONDON - For many viewers in their 30s and 40s, TV is starting to make them feel a little like they are children again. Turn on the TV and you will see The Wombles' Great Uncle Bulgaria, the Mr Men and even Paddington Bear. To top it all off, there's Mr T angrily pitying fools from the turret of a careering tank.

However, this is not the result of the TV shows of 25 years ago having been resurrected. Rather, the reassuring symbols of 70s and 80s childhoods have been repackaged and repurposed to sell modern products. Paddington - to the shock and chagrin of some purists - temporarily abandoned his signature marmalade to hawk Marmite. Mr Tickle is reaching consumers on behalf of Persil, The Wombles are extolling the virtues of EDF Energy's green efforts, and Mr T is promoting Snickers.

There is no need to be an expert to understand that the main reason for using these characters is that they come preloaded with instant recognition. Rather than spend ages investing and building their own brand character, advertisers rent one. They take temporary control of a character that provides specific connotations, bringing back memories for 30-somethings who are just beginning to look back on the 70s and 80s with a warm glow, largely absent at the time. But does this tactic really produce results for the brands involved? Do yesterday's characters fit with today's products, and the childhood icons of more than 20 years ago hold any meaning for younger viewers?

Using ready-made characters is a tried and tested concept. Many manufacturers make up their own, which, over time, become inextricably linked with the product, but Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands, believes its value as an approach depends on how urgently the advertiser wants to connect with the audience. 'If you have a product about to be launched, need to create something fast and have the money, then it's probably better to use an established character,' he says.

The popularity of video-sharing and social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook has been of great benefit to brands taking the nostalgia route. Because these ads often feature such well-loved characters, they can enjoy a form of viral afterlife long after their initial broadcast, or in some cases, where the clips have been carefully seeded, well before they air on TV, meaning consumers are building the brand for free. Moreover, these videos are often viewed on the strength of personal recommendation, further increasing their impact.

As powerful as nostalgic characters are, however, in the long run, brands may be better off investing in their own character. As much as consumers enjoy seeing the likes of Mr T again, their association with the products they are advertising will last only briefly. This is in contrast with proprietary characters such as the Pepperami Animal, where the link is permanent.

Cadbury is luckier than most in that it is able to raid its back catalogue for ideas. It recently resurrected its 'Flake girl' concept, this time a little more obliquely, featuring singer Joss Stone in a spot far less likely to prompt accusations of sexism than many of its previous ads. 

Phil Rumbol, marketing director at Cadbury, says the brand won't be returning to its 'woman in a bath' ads. 'We wanted to contemporise the Flake moment,' he says. 'Younger female consumers' idea of that moment is different from the way some people described it 20 years ago.' Nostalgia is a key trend, he adds. 'Whether it's about bringing back the Wispa or advertising Crunchie, we are trying to remember what made us great.'

Nonetheless, the use of nostalgia is no guarantee of success. While Sugar Puffs, for example, is in the enviable position of using Honey Monster both to tap into its retro appeal to adults and reach a new generation of children, some brand icons, such as Robertson's controversial Golly, are better left in the past.

Case Study: EDF and The Wombles

The Wombles - burrow-dwelling eco-activist creatures that first appeared in a children's book by Elisabeth Beresford in 1968 - were ahead of their time with their focus on recycling, and now feature in ads for energy company EDF. The campaign uses a montage of 'recycled' images and iconic characters.

Eva Eisenschimmel, chief operating officer for customers at EDF Energy, says The Wombles were chosen more for their 'on-message' status than their ability to transport 35-year-olds back to their childhood. However, a specific element of targeting is in play. 'This means a lot to women in their 30s and 40s, so that informed our choices,' she says. The use of so many clips also means there will be something to appeal to everyone, taking viewers back to a time when the environmental concerns of today were not as widely recognised, while foreshadowing the issues the ad is addressing.

Eisenschimel claims the ad has boosted awareness of the brand, as well as acting as internal marketing to EDF's 7000 staff. Half-way through the campaign, feedback, she says, is positive. 'The staff are proud that we're communicating what we stand for.'

Case study: Snickers and Mr T

Mr T became a cult icon after his stint as Bosco 'BA' (Bad Attitude) Baracus in hit 80s US TV show The A-Team. The series followed a fictional group of ex-US Army Special Forces as they tried to avoid capture for a crime that, famously, they did not commit.

When Mr T crashed onto the screen advertising Snickers last year, social networks were buzzing with appreciation. The ad depicts a group of young men playing football in a park. One dives, hamming up his injury, before Mr T appears in a tank. Yelling a string of his catchphrases at the player, he throws a Snickers bar at him and tells him to 'Get some nuts' before driving off.

Ian Hepburn, brand manager for Snickers, says that while the 'Get some nuts' campaign came first, Mr T is the perfect spokesman.

Snickers sales are up by 6%-7%, and the supporting campaign has, according to Hepburn, trebled the spot's effectiveness. Mr T is now also starring in a radio campaign that proves his voice is almost as distinctive as his mohawk-and-gold-chains look.

Case study: Marmite and Paddington

Despite having been absent from UK TV screens for 15 years, when Paddington decided to try Unilever's Marmite in his sandwich, rather than his usual marmalade, hardcore fans were up in arms. Commenting on YouTube, some described the tie-up as 'disturbing'. However, the controversy garnered reams of coverage and boosted sales of both Marmite and Paddington products.

Marmite brand manager Noam Buchalter maintains that the two are natural bedfellows. 'If you have brands from the same period, they work well together. But if you try to steal nostalgia and use it to sell a modern brand it's less effective.' The ad was aimed mainly at consumers who grew up with Paddington. 'We want to reach those who may be making sandwiches for kids' lunch boxes or for work,' adds Buchalter.

Besides being a lovable character, the bear is a good fit with the brand. 'Like Paddington,' explains Buchalter, 'a lot of people are stuck in a rut when it comes to sandwich-making. They want to try something different.'

Which brand character would you bring back? Have your say at brandrepublic.com/marketing

 

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