Top Performers of 2005: Campaign of the Year - Stella Artois

The brand engrossed consumers in "cinema sudoku" and an online world to support the latest in its tradition of "reassuringly expensive" TV spots.

Imagine that the most recent Stella Artois big-budget commercial was not the latest in a long and distinguished line that stretches back 15 years, but the first.

What hapless account director would have relished the prospect of selling the idea of an ad shot in black and white, featuring ice-skating clerics and a young novice who nearly drowns. Oh yes, and there's no dialogue, the plot is complex and as for the humour, well, it won't make you split your sides. Logic suggests the unfortunate suit would have been shown the door by the client and told to return only when his sanity did.

In 1990, Whitbread, then Stella's UK distributor, might have been forgiven for wondering if Lowe London had similarly taken leave of its senses.

Here was a script for a Belgian beer brand set in fin de siecle rural France. The dialogue was in French and there were no subtitles. The film was two minutes long, so couldn't be run very often. And all this to tell drinkers Stella was more expensive than rival brands despite the fact it was often cheaper. Who in their right mind could believe such a strategy would work?

Certainly not Millward Brown. "Brand-linked memorability is such that advertising awareness is likely to be below average," the research company predicted. "There is an indication that the ad will not fuel a sense of exclusivity around the brand or communicate quality worth paying for."

How wrong can you be? The "reassuringly expensive" campaign has not only linked Stella with intelligence, discernment and non-conformism, it has also given it an unassailable lead in the £6.5 billion UK premium lager market and transformed it into the country's third-largest grocery brand.

Stella advertising connects as well with drinkers in cool Soho bars as it does with macho football fans. When Stella hit the TV screens for the first time, it sold 600,000 barrels a year. In 2005, that figure reached 3.6 million.

This year's "ice-skating priests" and Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali spoof "le sacrifice", are as inventive, entertaining and well-shot as any of the brand's TV ads from over the years.

They also underline the consistency of the brand's message, as do the recent engrossing print ads described as "cinema sudoku" by The Observer, in which sequences from famous movies are embedded into everyday British scenes. It's not often that more than 100 people write to a company asking for copies of an ad to put on their walls.

This year, there was also a significant and highly successful change of tactic as the brand reached out to the twentysomething blogging and marketing-savvy generation.

"Lost souls" is a labyrinthine alternative-reality game that involves hidden passwords and secret codes that enable players to respond to help a woman trace her missing brother. There are no overt links to Stella.

Visitors have to work their way through the sites to discover the brand connection.

Sid Lieberson, the marketing director for Draft, which devised the game, says: "Our targets respect Stella as a successful brand with an accomplished market strategy and impressive and polished advertising - but they don't feel the advertising speaks to them.

"Our mission is to build on their respect for the brand, challenge them and take them by surprise. They understand marketing, so they're cynical about it. We want to break through that cynicism."

It's a measure of the success of the campaign that the hoped-for 20,000 site visitors quickly ballooned to 600,000. Moreover, "lost souls" has assumed a life of its own, with bloggers sharing their pet theories on the puzzle and how to solve it.

Focusing on a young audience eager to enjoy the latest technology has been equally successful this year for the mobile phone company 3. Love or hate WCRS's surreal campaign featuring a big-handed milkmaid and orgasmic Oriental housewives, few people dispute the campaign is fresh, original and achieves high standout.

The truth is that there has been method in the agency's apparent madness.

After replacing TBWA\London on the business last year, WCRS overhauled the strategy. Where TBWA's ads with Anna Friel set out to draw in a broad range of people, from teens to fiftysomethings, WCRS opted for much tighter targeting. A younger audience, it was felt, would be the biggest consumers of all the 3G perks - from music to games and videos - that distinguished 3 from its competition.

The unworldly style of the advertising in 2005 has been deliberate, reflecting the fact that 3 is coming from a different place than its Vodafone, Orange and O2 rivals. So too is the fact the ads draw inspiration from East Asia, a region synonymous with technology that's not just leading-edge but quirky and fun too.

Considering 3 spends a mere £41.9 million on ads compared with Orange's £81.4 million, results have been dramatic. Mobile phone networks are like banks. Most people don't want the hassle of switching from one to another. Against that background the growth of 3's customer base from 200,000 to 3.2 million in 18 months is pretty impressive.

Our third shortlisted campaign for 2005, for Marks & Spencer, represented a turnaround in the company's stance on advertising - it hadn't done a lot in the past, and what it had produced was below par to say the least.

So, to put so much faith in Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R was a big move.

Once the "Your M&S" line had been put to the investment community, it was released to the general public along with a group of memorable ads for the company's food range - M&S's Melting Middle Chocolate Pudding sold out within 48 hours of the ad being screened and sales rose 3,300 per cent.

Then came the print work for its menswear range, photographed by David Bailey, followed by a campaign for the autumn women's clothing range featuring the models Twiggy and Erin O'Connor. That campaign remained in the public eye for much longer than the two weeks it ran on TV because of the amount of press coverage it received - full-page features in newspapers including the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail.

All of this helped M&S's share price rise above 400p per share for the first time in three years, and clothing sales grew by 3.3 per while the Twiggy campaign was on air.

Recent winners: Honda (2004); 118 118 (2003); John Smith's (2002); ITV Digital (2001); Skoda (2000).

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