Paper Towel Brand Icon Gets Web-Based Reality Series

Brawny Man Star Turn Could Spur Other Marketers to Create Content

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CINCINNATI -- Could brand spokesmen and mascots become reality TV's new stars?

Georgia-Pacific has long had a pop-culture icon on its hands with the Brawny Man. The rugged flannel-wearing lumberjack, who serves as the face of the company's brand of paper towels, has been the subject of Marge's fantasies on "The Simpsons" and the butt of jokes on "South Park."
The flannel-clad Brawny Man teaches husbands the finer points of manliness, domestic chores and ballroom dancing, as well as how to throw hatchets and clean filthy windows with superstrong paper towels.

But the character is getting less animated and becoming more real.

Web-based reality series

G-P, a unit of privately held Koch Industries, is readying the launch of a Web-based reality series, "Brawny Academy," in which the Brawny Man will run a backwoods rehab camp for domestically challenged husbands to make them more helpful and thoughtful around the house. The first of eight 9- to 13-minute episodes to launch over 16 weeks goes online June 12.

TV ads directing viewers to broke May 29. In addition, print ads will appear in women's magazines in July.

The series will become the No. 2 paper-towel brand's major marketing program this year. Brawny earned sales of $244 million in the 52 weeks ended April 16.

The move by Brawny to put extensive resources behind a Web series signals just how important branded entertainment has become for some advertisers.

Filling a digital need for content

It's also one of the few examples where a company's recognizable spokesman or mascot has made the leap from packaging into entertainment on such a significant scale. And it could signal a new trend for marketers as online channels such as AOL, Yahoo, Google and MySpace seek out new digital content and provide advertisers with unique opportunities to reach consumers.

Other brands have already been producing their own Web-based reality series, such as Axe deodorant with "Evan and Gareth" and Pepsi-Cola with its "100 Concerts in 100 Days." But Axe and Pepsi had to recruit their stars for those shows.

The Brawny Man has been a household name for years. Based on its research, G-P felt that the Brawny Man had become enough of an icon for the company to capitalize on his image through entertainment, said brand manager John Bowman.

But G-P wanted to develop the character beyond the cameos he occasionally gets on cartoons.

"Our goal is to manage that [development] very carefully so he stays very relevant to our target and represents the brand as well as the product," Mr. Bowman said.

Produced by Fallon

Hence the launch of "Brawny Academy," which was produced by Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, the agency that launched the popular BMW Films series.

Costs to produce "Brawny Academy" were not disclosed, but putting the Brawny Man's reality vehicle online adds some control for Georgia-Pacific and its consumers while subtracting costs. But G-P and Fallon see the project as having significant mass appeal.

Brawny spent only $7 million last year in measured media, compared to $24 million in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Georgia-Pacific already has invested heavily in updating the Brawny Man's image. A makeover in 2004 replaced the original mustachioed lumberjack, seen by many as a 70's-style porn star, with an ethnically ambiguous flannel-clad everyman created by Deskey, Cincinnati. Ads behind the new Brawny Man already helped establish his kitchen cred as he did things such as help frost a birthday cake for mom.

Sensitive, modern Brawny Man

"Innocent Escapes," a series of viral films last year in which the very sensitive, modern Brawny Man offered firelight romance and foot massages, already proved he could live online. When G-P decided to save some broadband dollars by taking the films down, it started getting complaints from consumers.

"It ended up having a very rabid following but a cult following," said Brian Dilonardo, director of broadcast at Fallon. "It allowed us to see the potential in doing this project."

Online or no, the production is broadcast quality, said John Feist, a producer for "Brawny Academy" who has been a producer on "Survivor," "The Restaurant" and other TV series.

Collaboration at the outset with Fallon was critical, he said. "I've worked with major brands like Coors, JCPenney, Nissan, and I've found it works much better to get the brand involved at a very early stage."

Husband and wife art director team

Kris and Alisa Sengel Wixom, Fallon's husband and wife art director team, created the Brawny Man character for the series, described by Mr. Feist as "quirky, off-kilter and giving these kind of fuzzy-logic non-sequiturs."

"I'm the Brawny Man," actor John Brennan, a more unapologetically Caucasian version of the package icon, says in introducing himself to contestants. "But you can call me Brawny Man."

He teaches husbands the finer points of manliness, domestic chores and ballroom dancing, as well as how to throw hatchets, run deep in the woods while carrying a boulder and clean filthy windows with superstrong paper towels.

Besides the humor, Brawny Man's monologues during intros and conclusions, where he can be seen using paper towels to clean a dirty bird or bottle feeding a baby alligator, "give you the context of why the Brawny Man has the credentials to set these guys straight," Kris Wixom said.

Treating the icon as real

Strangely, the hubbies have little trouble treating the icon as real. "They bought into this notion of the Brawny Man as a celebrity," Mr. Feist said, and that he could teach them to be better men in a non-preachy, fun way.

The series, of course, also offers plenty of opportunities to use paper towels. But Brawny will get ample permission to do product placement from viewers, because it's so obviously a vehicle for the brand, said Lachlan Badenoch, Fallon's planning director.

"A lot of what gets called branded entertainment is a piece of content with product placement," Mr. Badenoch said. "We wouldn't define that as branded entertainment. That's product placement. This is about taking an issue that's of interest to consumers and creating content around it. You can have fun and be much more overt with it."

While the concept is in many ways like Fallon's acclaimed BMW Films, the approach differs in several key ways, Mr. Badenoch said.

"BMW Films is very much a sexier category and one which has a lot of high interest to start with," he said. "It was also a project at a time when there wasn't anything else like that online. This is much more about really engaging a mainstream audience. ... You can be a little more mainstream in the way you publicize it. The fact that we're using trailers on broadcast TV is something we wouldn't have done with BMW films. It was kind of an insider feeling we were trying for with BMW Films. It's a reflection I guess of how far the internet has progressed the past few years."

Even though the project is about a fictitious character running a reality boot camp in Northern California, it should come across much more honestly with consumers than most advertising in the cleaning categories, Mr. Bowman said.

When Brawny asked women what they thought of current cleaning ads, he said "they thought the portrayal of women dancing through hallways and singing with brooms in their hands was so out of touch with reality."
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