Cover Story: PG Tips adopts a new Monkey

How a simian spokescreature is trying to sell the health benefits of black tea.

Unilever is backing one of its oldest brands with its biggest-ever marketing spend in an attempt to reverse a long-term decline in a key market.

The central plank of the strategy is a sales promotion, astride which sits a knitted monkey.

Yes, Monkey and his sidekick Al - stars of 2001's ITV Digital ad campaign - are back: PG Tips' promotional chimps for a new generation. This time, their challenge is to put the pep back into tepid black tea sales and bring the 77-year-old brand bang up to date.

PG Tips will be repositioned for the first time in a decade, on a health platform. In his role as well-spoken educator, Monkey will deliver the new health claim that tea contains theanine, which aids concentration.

"Consumers told us that tea doesn't just help them relax but also to focus," says Kate Hick, PG Tips brand manager at subsidiary Unilever Foods.

The company's researchers knew that theanine existed in tea - and in a rare Japanese mushroom - but had not previously identified it as the ingredient that delivered mental clarity.

The new health message is Unilever's play to inject some interest into the £437.9 million black tea market (AC Nielsen) and to catch the current wave of dietary concerns. The Tea Council has already been advertising tea as beneficial to health, alongside some other surprising candidates - chocolate and red wine. "'How to help you focus in a cluttered world' is perhaps a more relevant message than 'go home and put your feet up', because people are trying to juggle fitting more into their lives," says Hick.

In 2007, Unilever wants to turn last year's 1.4 per cent value decline for the sector into growth, reviving sales of PG Tips and sending its brand share steaming ahead of close rival Tetley (owned by India's Tata Group). Hick cites a 23 per cent value share for PG Tips (Nielsen) and says Tetley comes close, while researcher Datamonitor puts Tata at 20.3 per cent in volume terms, ahead of Unilever with 19.1 per cent.

"If we got people drinking just one more cup of tea a day, it would have a massive impact," says Hick.

Certainly the budget is big enough to make a bang. An £18 million marketing spend - up from £8 million last year - will back a free Monkey in-pack promotion via Dialogue Marketing Group, which will run nationally from 14 February on 160-bag packs. Two-thirds of that investment will hit in the first three months of the year, spread across TV, print, online and point-of-sale advertising, as well as on-pack and PR. Ad agency Mother, appointed in May 2005, has also created a 10-second ad focusing specifically on the free Monkey promotion.

"Mind game" puzzles on the back of the packs will direct consumers for solutions to a revamped website (www.pgtips.co.uk), incorporating health education and online gaming, and to a Monkey Web Shop.

Monkey merchandise

In another first, the site (created by digital agency AKQA) will sell Monkey merchandise such as slippers, rucksacks and soft toys. Unilever has never sold promotional merchandise on the internet before. "This is a new area for us," admits Hick.

The idea is to generate more interest in the brand than pure advertising can, says Hick. "Great advertising is fantastic, but it is very effective to give consumers something back from the brand. I honestly think people are most influenced in the store environment."

The high profile of Monkey (which is now owned by charity Comic Relief) and Al (played by hoarse-voiced comedian Jonny Vegas) and the heavy plugging behind the promotion means there is concern that the projected millions of promotional packs will not be enough to meet demand.

"Unilever is very excited about this," says Dialogue account director Georgina Whittle. "Other brand teams are saying, 'we want some of this sort of thing'."

Famous for ads featuring live, dressed-up chimps - in one of the UK's longest-running and most effective campaigns - PG Tips has dabbled with replacement characters the T Birds since 2000 and run campaigns around Wallace & Gromit and World Cup football. But the legacy of the 44-year-old chimps campaign was too valuable to leave untapped.

Using live animals had become less "comfortable", Hick says, but there are references to the chimps peppered throughout the promotion - from the Chimp logo on Monkey's shirt to posters that feature the old chimp family themselves.

Broad appeal

The transfer from chimps to Monkey might make simian sense, but is it right for the PG Tips brand?

Tea is perceived as a restorative, relaxing drink, often enjoyed with a friend, and mostly bought by 25- to 45-year-old women. Do those shoppers really need to know it is healthy? And, accepting that they might, will they respond to an energetic, knitted Monkey and Jonny Vegas, known as much for his obesity and over-indulgence as his sharp wit?

Hick sweeps such doubts aside, pointing to Monkey's "broad appeal", and suggesting that he is not at all energetic or "in your face".

In any case, this is the time for PG Tips to stretch its own appeal beyond its core purchasers, says Whittle. "We're contemporising the brand - making the target broader and reinvigorating it," she says. At the same time, packs have been made "fresher, more vibrant", replacing illustration with photography in a revamp by Design Bridge.

With a stronger innovation team and plan in place, PG Tips might now be able to take on the growing competition such as fruit, herbal and green teas. Hicks thinks so. "We'll be looking at all areas of the tea market and if we are properly positioning ourselves long-term as a healthy brand, then we need to be looking at all health areas, definitely," she says.

Her first challenge, however, is to prove that the repositioning is more than just hype around a soft toy. That's the real monkey on her back.

IN MY VIEW

While this campaign has all the elements to make it a massive news-driving event, the knitted wool that binds them together could fray at the edges in repositioning the brand long-term.

Let's start with the health platform. The newly discovered benefit of "focus" appears robust and motivating. However, it's a significant shift from the historic role and perception of tea and will require long-term communication to resonate with consumers. It's also a more abstract concept than known features such as anti-oxidants, low-fat content or hydration. Will PG Tips be able to own this ground or merely boost the whole category, with Tetley close on its heels?

Now, the on-pack promotion. This is where the stitches start to come apart if the genuine platform is health. How does a free in-pack Monkey relate to the new concentration claim?

Free Wallace & Gromit and World Cup football mugs proved a massive success for the brand. A high-value insert in every pack is an expensive game, rewarding all purchasers, whether new or existing. But it should drive brand switching and increased sales with impact at the point of purchase.

Integration with what appears to be a truly appealing website - informative, fun, engaging and a shopping portal - should be applauded.

There seems to have been as much effort spent on the small details as there has on the big idea.

Monkey delivers a character with latent appeal and (just) retains a link to the chimps legacy. Risks remain around his sidekick Al and the off-and-on-screen antics of Jonny Vegas (currently playing a small-time drug dealer in the BBC Three show Ideal), but I'm all for brands taking on colourful characters.

Do all the elements work well as separate platforms? A resounding yes. But I am left a little confused and unsure if this campaign fits together. Having said that, without doubt, the scale of media spend alongside both a high-value and highly desirable premium will deliver massive consumer news and a volume and value share boost for the brand. Only time will tell if the execution of this new positioning is integrated and here to stay.

- Andy Duff is managing director of ATOM Marketing

7 OUT OF 10.

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