Creative Push: Ragu gets a robust boost in advertising

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Unilever Bestfoods' new $25 million ad campaign suggests consumers throw caution to the wind and embrace the spirit of Ragu's Robusto! In fact, the new effort that breaks this week from J. Walter Thompson, New York, is indicative of Unilever's efforts to do just that with its advertising creative.

The Ragu advertising push (a ten-fold increase over last year's spending) marks a relaunch of the pasta sauce franchise and a new focus on the three-year-old Robusto! brand as an adult-oriented, bolder sauce that uses the humorous theme, "Eat life up." The effort, which includes both a new car buyer and a limo driver breaking into passionate-Italian mode, follows a stream of new Unilever campaigns airing this spring as part of an aggressive push to grow top brands with "creative bravery"(AA, Dec. 10, 2001).

Hellmann's last month launched a roughly $15 million effort from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe, New York, to gain attention for the iconic mayonnaise with pants-dropping male dancers. This month, Lipton Side Dishes introduced the first spot in a $15 million "Dinner games" campaign from Bcom3 Group-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, that pits mom-against-mom in a physical competition to woo kids to the dinner table. Unilever also recently launched work for its Lawry's Marinades (from Interpublic's Dailey & Associates, Los Angeles) and introduced ads for Bertolli premium pasta sauces formerly marketed as Five Brothers (also from Bartle Bogle).

"Our new creative is less traditional, a bit more aggressive and out of the box to help our advertising stand out against the general advertising [universe] rather than just against our direct competitors," said Bauke Rouwers, general manager-savory brands at Unilever. While Unilever has for years had a thrust to improve ad quality and has been doing so in Europe, he said, the effort begins in earnest here in the U.S. this spring.

`Water-Cooler' ads

"The directive from Unilever executives from a creative standpoint was to create `water-cooler' advertising; they wanted to know from ad-testing groups: `Would you talk about this with your friends tomorrow?"' said Mary Anne Infante, creative director on Ragu at WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, New York. "You rarely [hear] that from clients."

Of course, bearing in mind its failure to build sales for its Lipton Sizzle & Stir despite a stirring campaign, Unilever has developed flagship areas within its brand platforms on which to focus. Lipton Side Dishes, for example, replaced Sizzle & Stir in terms of ad focus, and Robusto!-still a relatively small $24 million in sales for the 52 weeks ended April 21, according to Information Resources Inc.-has been given center stage within the Ragu lineup. Last year's Ragu Express entry will still get its own ad budget, likely to reflect the new "Eat life up" theme.

Ragu has suffered recently from its lack of advertising-only $2.5 million in measured media last year for the base brand, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Although still the leader of the $1.4 billion spaghetti sauce category, its sales dropped nearly 1% to $532 million compared to growth of 10% for Campbell Soup Co.'s $319 million Prego brand, according to IRI.

With Ragu's ads, a guerilla-marketing effort, new packaging and new product innovation summer, Mr. Rouwers said "potential for the brand is huge," with expectations set for double-digit growth and beyond beginning this summer. n

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