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Turtles and the joy of nostalgia // C-word observations

16 Mar 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
Turtles and the joy of nostalgia // C-word observations

Nostalgia can be a very powerful tool for advertisers, writes Dominic Mills - especially when the future seems so uncertain. Plus: how coronavirus is impacting media and advertising

With uncanny coincidence earlier this month, news that British Gas was retiring its Wilbur the penguin brand mascot — excellent Mediatel News piece here — overlapped with a similar story about Direct Line and Winston Wolf, although the term mascot doesn’t really match Mr Wolf.

This prompted a daft thought: why didn’t they just swap? Better still, why doesn’t someone set up a secondary market in retired brand mascots? It’s not without precedent: Monkey, the spokes-er-animal for ITV Digital found a second life a few years later fronting up for PG Tips.

Anyway, Wolf has gone and is replaced by various Hollywood/TV characters licences, including ninja turtle Donatello, Bumblebee from Transformers and RoboCop.

Here’s Donatello in action:

Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson has a long analysis about the power of characters — when done right — as distinctive brand assets. He links to a fascinating piece of research by Ipsos which looks at the constituent parts of different brand assets and their contribution to consumer recall.

One thing that surprised him (less so me) was the relative impact of sound as a distinctive brand asset. I think of McDonald’s, British Airways, O2 and Intel, all of which I would recognise in my sleep, as well as the original Direct Line ringtone.

But there’s one other benefit characters can bring a brand, and that is nostalgia. Donatello, Bumblebee and RoboCop all go back to the late 80s and early 90s, meaning they have particular resonance with the generation aged between 30 and 45.

This cohort, many buying their first homes or starting families, must be front and centre as a target age group for Direct Line. As they enter this life-stage, people suddenly want security, one form of which is knowing you are properly insured.

Nostalgia, as some research last year by the7stars and YouGov shows, is a powerful trigger for all, but especially for millennials who look fondly back on the 90s when they were growing up. Nostalgia takes many forms — music, fashion, TV and so on — but brand characters are an easy way for brands to tap into this strain.

And inadvertently for Direct Line, because this work was conceived well before coronavirus was a thing, nostalgia is especially powerful when the future looks shaky.

And Don Draper, the world’s most famous adman, was particularly partial to nostalgia. “Nostalgia — it’s delicate but potent. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone,” he said.

Which reminds me: must be time to get the boxset out again for a bit of joyous self-isolation.

The c-word: a few short observations

I was chatting to an agency boss last week. He was lost in spreadsheet hell, trying to work out which staff could work on which clients from home — and when — and which ones needed to be in the office or to attend meetings.

That, in some ways, was the least of his problems. Far worse was managing a flurry of client calls and emails about pulling or delaying campaigns. One even asked whether it was OK if they delayed paying the agency (for work already done) for two to three months. That was given short shrift.

“It feels like we’re doing twice the work for half the money,” he said.

You can see this pressure in the share prices of the holding companies and WPP in particular, which has halved in a month.

Besides agencies, there are some obvious media sectors in the firing line. I went to the cinema on Sunday (mad possibly, but a form of self isolation and two hours of big-screen escapism). Only seven other people were there and although we could sit where we liked (i.e. in the premium seats) we all sat as far away as we could from each other.

And while commercial TV is going to take a hit — ITV has already warned about advertisers pulling money — the combination of higher viewing and lower demand will mean bargains are to be had. I suspect programmes with even a hint of escapism (the start of Belgravia, ITV’s Downton Abbey Mark II on Sunday for example) will surely do well.

And if I was ITV, I’d market the hell out of BritBox right now. It’s an opportunity, but there’s also the imminent threat of the launch of Disney’s streaming service next week which has been given a tail wind by self-isolation generally and the potential closure of schools.

A second focus is news. In times of uncertainty, and when rumour can be as contagious as disease, people flock to trusted news providers. There’s a benefit for all legacy publishers here, but none more than the BBC. I’ve consumed more BBC news in the last week than in the last month. At a time when it is highly vulnerable to government interference and its impartiality has been challenged, this is an opportunity to redress the balance and build public support. (Mind you, I could do without the tendency of newscasters to describe the infection or death rate as ‘leaping’ or 'soaring’ when in fact it’s just increased off a low base.)

But two categories of ad business seem especially vulnerable. One is experiential work. Dead for now.

The second is commercials production, with live-action shoots especially vulnerable. Although some have been pulled back to the UK, even they are at risk from travel or social-distancing restrictions — and that’s assuming they can get into a studio where capacity is restricted. There are ways round the problem — here’s the APA on use of technology (for example, to allow remote directing) — but as I understand it, almost no agencies have insurance cover against cancellations caused by communicable disease so no-one will take a risk by green-lighting a project.

But clouds have silver linings. Italian gambling company GAN noted that it had processed 14% more bets over the period of the coronavirus than the comparable period last year. As for online gambling platforms, so for DTCs and food delivery operators, and especially their agencies who specialise in performance marketing.

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07 Apr 2020 

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