how to milk a cat

Wieden + Kennedy's Theo Izzard-Brown was interviewed by marketing website Imperica in our Rib Room (above) about our new Cravendale 'Cats with Thumbs' campaign. Here's the story:

Fictional characters can build brands. Whether it's BT's Buzby in the Seventies or, more recently Aleksandr Orlov, they can touch an emotional "soft spot" and go on to achieve long-lasting recognition, way after the end of their campaign.

Such appreciation is both a blessing and a curse for agencies. While appreciation and recognition of the character is indicative of the campaign's impact, the character can also become bigger than the brand: enjoying success in terms of awareness, but with very little impact at the point of sale. These issues are brought into even sharper focus when digital comes into play, where characters can exist on YouTube and have their own Twitter account.

A recognition of these and other factors were important in the development of Bertrum, the lead character in the new campaign by Wieden+Kennedy for Arla's Cravendale milk brand. As consumer dairy products are of low interest to most people, W+K had quickly decided to develop an quirky initial campaign featuring three lead characters: a cow, pirate, and cyclist. Here, the objective was to metaphorically slap consumers around the face, and ignite interest in a brand and product. Any hope of the consumer absorbing any point of differentiation about the product – in this case, a triple filtration, preserving freshness for longer – required an execution which was quirky, different, and to an extent, provocative. Consumers had to notice it.

It was felt last year that the inherent creativity within that campaign had run its course, and that something new was needed. Its creartive quirkiness had something of a lasting effect on sales and on the audience, with the agency being mindful of the effect of turning the campaign off before its replacement could be turned on. As a result, a "farewell film" was made, with highlights of the campaign, in order to manage disruption amongst consumers sympathetic to the campaign: it was obviously important that this group could be migrated to a new campaign and thus remain customers of Cravendale.

Cravendale's market had also evolved. The milk sector is in decline, with the exception of the subcategory of filtered milk, where Cravendale is dominant. However, because it is dominant, it was perceived to be only a matter of time before new entrants would come into play and challenge the brand's market share. A new campaign had an additional, and not inconsiderable, challenge of building share at a time of perceived, and very powerful, commercial threats.

Theo Izzard-Brown and his team at W+K set about developing a new world for the brand – and it's very much a world. A context was developed which would frame the creative work within a new campaign over a longer term. The campaign effectively forms a plan for how the brand will change, rather than an attempt to simply move it on in every single execution.

"Fun within a framework" allowed Izzard-Brown and his colleagues to experiment with a set of boundaries that allowed for a continued sense of fun, and the ability to "jolt" the consumer with an off-the-wall visual treatment – but for both agency and brand to understand the boundaries. Every narrative treatment within the framework will utilise the same three-part structure: a truth, a progressive abstraction of that truth, and a resolution that lies within the brand. The framework subsequently gave rise to a brand world based on interconnected nodal points, to which characters, scenarios, executions and media could be tied together and managed as a whole. This gave W+K the chance to work with characterisation, but not to be hampered by it. It also provides a tonal and contextual consistency in every execution. As Izzard-Brown says: "If you see an execution in 2 years from now, it will be completely different, but yet strangely familiar."

Development of the new framework involved two new emotional characteristics for the brand. The first, "Breathless enthusiasm", signifies the direct and sheer delight of accessing a product – like opening a Christmas present. The second, "Mismatched intensity", is based on quirky and unique behaviours that are seen to be outside of standard practice, but unrelentingly creative in their approach. Together, these characteristics were designed to express the passion behind the product: a unique product which has taken time to produce. While this is clearly the case as far as Cravendale's characteristics are concerned (the triple-filtering), they allowed W+K to move away from the danger of explaining the product's advantages in a scientific way, inevitably inviting risk if they were not understood. In short, as Izzard-Brown says, the campaign is about "…getting carried away with milk. Having a structure within which you create oddness works much more effectively in terms of warming to it, and understanding what's being said. Cravendale has a legacy and a degree of permission to do something a bit weird; people expect and like that from us, which is great, and it's a real privilege to do that sort of communication. But, we needed to ground it in something that was more familiar.

"People like the elaborateness of the crest, that it's over-the-top, but done in a suitably knowing way. They appreciate the fact that it's milk at the end of the day, but Cravendale cares enough to put this much effort into it. It's about persuading the client to think that it's about everything that they do – from the smallest bit of copy on the back of the packaging, to the biggest ad, to tweets. We worked with Cravendale to shape and interpret this, so they had one very consistent expression of that love and passion."

Cravendale crest

The new ad features cats with thumbs. "It's all about trying to engineer the creative, to 'rub': looking for the bit that's a little bit dissonant, culturally, that makes you do a double-take." The intention of W+K's Cravendale team was to develop an execution that would appeal to a wide range of age groups: it would amuse those in their late teens and early 20s, who would watch it again and discuss it online – and raise it with their parents, who in turn will qualify the brand through watching the TV spot, and ultimately buy the product. Understanding generational and demographical interplay was important in developing such a quirky treatment. The creative approach should not be dissuasive to any of these groups.

As the campaign featured an unbranded video that was published online before the full campaign broke, there had to be a lot of careful planning as to what the reaction to a video of thumb-equipped cats might be. One such possibility was that it could just get lost. After all, there is a sea of cat content online, so it had to be different enough to be noticeable, but with a clear sense of narrative purpose. "It couldn't just be something funny with cats."

The figurehead of the new campaign is Bertrum, a thumb-enabled cat that is happy to converse with people on Twitter. However, the brand world allows the team to work with other characters and environments over time, to which Bertrum is just one part. "Characters can help in giving focus to the community. What we did not want to do was to create a meerkat, and to replace Cow-Pirate-Cyclist with another brand vehicle. What I'm hoping is that what Bertrum does is evidence: to talk about the brand's attitude to milk. Characters have limitations, but they are also hugely useful. What we're not trying to do is something about the cat's family, for example."

 Izzard-Brown sees the world that Bertrum inhabits as being less episodic in a standard, linear fashion, and more like the world of Marvel comics: a universe, held together with certain parameters, and with a narrative tone and style. New characters are permitted to be introduced, but they must have undergone significant development, backstory treatment, and their relationships need to be clear, before they are allowed into the world. Ultimately, the world allows a focal point to be owned by different characters over time, rather than be dominated by one character that becomes a creative millstone, as their relevance and interest declines in the marketplace.

Such an elaborate, interconnected world also gives permission for other visual elements to be brought into play, providing humorous references to particular audiences. The TV spots and video material featuring Bertrum are loaded with contemporary visual references. This provides additional stimulation for conversations to take place online, where a picking-apart of each video can take place, and for the identification of new visual cues to be shared within groups and communities.

So, where does this leave Bertrum? "I fully expect that Bertrum will pop up in the future in some shape or form. He might pop up in a fleeting presence. Someone will see him, and become the agent to tell people about it." This micro-empowerment retains people within the world, while continually seeking out new parts of it.

Bertrum clearly represents the start of a longer-term development for Cravendale and W+K. The development of a loyal fanbase, starting with Cat-Pirate-Cyclist and continuing into cats with thumbs, has enabled a brand personality to mature, and this new world to open up and flourish. By utilising fictional characters without being dependent on them, the agency has allowed for the taking of further creative risks, but within creative parameters. It clearly requires a considerable amount of care, attention and development: but, over time, we will start to see others within this new world – and understand and interact with them as many fans and followers have already done with the first inhabitants.

Theo Izzard-Brown is an Account Planner at Wieden+Kennedy London. A full set of videos from the current campaign, featuring cats with thumbs, can be seen at Cravendale's website and YouTube channel. Bertrum is @bertrumthumbcat on Twitter and you can find him on Facebook here.

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