When the marketer reanimated its namesake and founder in a spot launched during the Golden Globes, public reaction was swift and, seemingly, unified. The once-lovable grandpa was dubbed Orville Deadenbacher, scathing comments poured into an AdAge.com blog post featuring the video and the question being asked in the industry was: "What on earth was it trying to achieve?"
Buzz, apparently. Within three days of launching the ad, ConAgra claimed it had racked up at least 35 million PR impressions spanning broadcast and print media. And that doesn't include the thousands of blog mentions.
But what if all 35 million of those impressions are negative? According to ConAgra and Crispin Porter & Bogusky -- an agency that's gained a reputation for stirring up hornet's nests of publicity -- the wave of public nausea was all part of the plan.
Stan Jacot, VP-marketing for popcorn at ConAgra, said the campaign was "definitely a leap of faith on our end," noting that "anything new is bound to be controversial." But he fully believes that as the campaign unfolds and the digitized version of Mr. Redenbacher returns again and again, the ads will gain acceptance "even among the ones who are most negative."
BK King, Subservient Chicken
Crispin has found that to be true in other cases where it has pushed the envelope, most notably with the King and the Subservient Chicken for Burger King. Crispin, no stranger to controversy, certainly prepped ConAgra for the repercussions (both positive and negative) when pitching the idea. "What happens is [the ads] are very controversial, then they become accepted, and then they take their place wherever it is they belong," said Alex Bogusky, executive creative director at Crispin.
Mr. Bogusky said "there is a lot of power to the brand in being first to do it," referring to the digital animation used in the spot, which was created by Digital Domain. The Orville Redenbacher campaign, he said, "will always be mentioned when the next guy does it."
The idea for the campaign came out of Mr. Bogusky's recognition of the difficulty ConAgra and other companies such as KFC and Wendy's have faced when confronted with the loss of the spokesmen who defined their brands. With today's computer graphics, he said, "we were able to bring Orville Redenbacher back as the face of the brand."
Retro ads spiked sales
ConAgra was convinced of the popularity of its founder, even years after his death, when retro ads from 1976 were aired last year to impressive results. Dollar sales for Orville, which leads the category with a 40% share, grew 2.6% to $232 million in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for 2006, according to Information Resources Inc. The ads scored in the top 1% of the ASI database. "America was ready for Orville to be back in their dialogue," Mr. Jacot said.
But airing old ads was not a permanent solution because, he said, "we have to make sure we have a platform to talk about news and innovation." (Using Gary Redenbacher, the founder's grandson, was also not an option even though that was the plan hatched years ago when Orville was alive. "I could invoke nostalgia, maybe bring back some memories, but I'm not Grandpa," the younger Redenbacher explained.) Now, of course, the company has an Orville who can spread the news about the popcorn brand's latest offering -- even if the spokes-thing does initially repulse people.
And it remains to be seen if the blogger backlash represents the true tide of consumer sentiment. Only future sales of the brand will be able to say. Mr. Bogusky doesn't think so. He thinks the campaign hits at the core of what ConAgra wants Orville Redenbacher to be: relevant.
"Relevance to us is being about what's going on in popular culture, and this is squarely in the center of that," he said. Hence the chatter. "It's great stuff to blog on. It's juicy."