Birds Eye marketing director: why we gave the Captain a rugged new look for 2018
A view from Steve Challouma

Birds Eye marketing director: why we gave the Captain a rugged new look for 2018

There is a place for reinvention in even the most familiar of brands, but marketers must always consider what will be plausible to their audience, writes Birds Eye's marketing director.

Over the last 12 months, we have seen a plethora of marketers reinventing their brand assets and/or campaigns.

Among many others, Dolmio ditched its Italian puppets for one of Dominic West’s more modern families, Shreddies retired its Knitting Nanas after many years on air and last year, KFC opted for funky dancing chickens over the traditional and familiar Colonel Sanders character.

These are all attractive, well-executed, refreshing campaigns that have created impact and driven conversation (particularly in marketing media). By tapping into cultural trends, brands such as McCain and its "We are family" campaign helped them to portray a more modern outlook, showing that the brand is in touch with today’s societal issues.

Other brands are going back to their roots for inspiration - either reverting to or reframing old or even formerly abandoned brand assets or slogans.

For example, Heinz brought back its classic 1960s "Beanz meanz Heinz" over "It has to be Heinz" as it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Budweiser remixed the classic "Bud-Weis-Er" Frog campaign from the 1995 Superbowl for its Bud Light launch, and indeed Colonel Sanders made a blistering return for KFC in the last few weeks after its chicken delivery crisis.

In January this year, Cadbury ditched its "Joy" platform, six years into a ten-year strategy, in favour of the tried-and-tested campaign – "Glass and a half" – to promote human kindness.

The decision to come with a new campaign is often driven by a new marketing leadership, change in strategic direction, company acquisition or indeed the appointment of a new CMO. All too often, brand reinvention is considered the panacea to a bad year of sales comps, a need to drive efficiency and profitability or an unshackling of the past which is perceived to be holding the brand back.

Closer to home at Birds Eye, January saw the return of Captain Birds Eye to screens after a hiatus of over ten years.

We were the first to admit we'd got it wrong when we cast 31-year-old smooth operator Thomas Pescod as Captain Birds Eye in 1990.

In the many incarnations and reinventions of Birds Eye over the last twenty years, I have observed both approaches: of building- on current brand structures, and the invention of new ones.

On the one hand, "Fresh as the moment the pod went pop" has come and gone on Peas, and the sticky, affectionate and mildly irritating "Waffly versatile" has made its appearance on a periodic basis for Potato Waffles.

On the other, the invention of the "Clarence the polar bear" and the "Better meals together" campaigns have represented a reset for the Birds Eye brand, with minimal linkage to the brand history.

According to the increasingly ubiquitous and often polarising Byron Sharp (professor of marketing science at the University of South Australia), your "memory structures" are the simple and distinctive assets associated with your brand that, when seen, trigger instinctual responses and bring the brand front-of-mind when shopping.

Sharp argues that the job of marketers is to refresh and rebuild these on a constant basis to keep them recognisable and front-of-mind.

The responsibility and duty for marketers and agencies, before embarking on a brand reset, must be to really assess how far they can go in building-on and refreshing existing brand assets to keep them relevant.

Admittedly, this can be less exciting and present significant creative challenges – what aspects do you keep? How do you stay authentic to the history of the brand whilst moving forward with the times? How do you avoid appearing contrived?

All too often marketers can get this very wrong, and at Birds Eye, we are the first to admit this was the case when we cast 31-year-old smooth operator Thomas Pescod as Captain Birds Eye in 1990.

You need to acknowledge that your consumers have invested and bought into the brand assets in some way, often compounded over a period of years or even decades.

This change in direction was unsuccessful as the character wasn’t authentic to the brand and its history, resulting in consumers mocking and finally rejecting the new portrayal of the Captain.

Conversely, the most recent reboot of Captain Birds Eye, which not only keeps to the tradition of the maritime hero but also aligns with the brand’s new positioning around authenticity, seems to have hit the right note and has had an incredible impact from a cut through perspective. As the planner at our advertising agency Grey put it, it’s about "fresh consistency".

Learning from our experience in 1990, we rebooted our icon, Captain Birds Eye, and managed to reinvent consumers’ perception of the brand, without rocking the boat or opting for a complete overhaul.

The new campaign saw a new, rugged Captain sail onto our screens, evolving the image of the icon that has built-up over the years into a more authentic, genuine reflection of life today. Although it’s early days, the new Captain has won over the nation, with consumers getting on-board with the fresh look instantly.

So – what is the right call for brand leaders? Stick, or twist? Reinvent the brand through new campaigns that connect with audiences and life’s modern realities, or stay with the historic, heritage assets that remind consumers that you are a trusted brand?

What’s clear is that you need to understand your audience first and foremost, and you need to acknowledge that your consumers have invested and bought into the brand assets in some way, often compounded over a period of years or even decades. Pressing the "reset" button comes with consequences which brands must be prepared for.

As we are seeing, when you refresh your brand in the right way, you can reactivate latent affection, present the brand in a credible new light, and build on the compounded memories created years before.

Aye aye to that, Captain.

Steve Challouma is marketing director at Birds Eye, and a member of Campaign’s Power 100