Revival of the fittest

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Every adman worth his salt dreams of creating an enduring brand icon. What up-and-coming creative directors often dread is being charged with keeping some of these venerable icons-be they jingles, spokespersons, taglines or animation-alive and well.

"If they're honest, [advertisers] have to ask themselves `Has this run out of steam, or is it part of the culture?"' said Donald Gunn, author of The Gunn Report, formerly worldwide creative head at Leo Burnett USA, Chicago. Burnett is the division of Bcom3 Group noted for creating the Marlboro man, the Jolly Green Giant and Tony the Tiger, among other icons. "If it's the latter, we can freshen it up a bit. Everything needs to be refreshed in advertising, but it's amazing how long some of these things have gone on."

After an 11-year absence, American Isuzu Motors brought back actor David Leisure last month as Joe Isuzu, the pitchman prone to exaggerated lies. Duke Hale, senior VP-chief operating officer at the SUV marketer, said during the initial four-year Joe Isuzu campaign the brand's awareness level was close to its all-time high, so bringing Mr. Leisure back was a way to break through the clutter of vehicle advertising. But a former Isuzu executive said that while Joe Isuzu heightened brand awareness, the original ads didn't sell vehicles.

The task of reviving Joe fell to Omnicom Group's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, which now handles the campaign created in 1986 by Della Femina McNamee, New York. Goodby creatives updated Joe Isuzu by showing him as a "real person" who has a life, rather than as the pure pitchman of the old ads, said Paul Venables, co-creative director at Goodby. The revival spots show him getting into shape to take a job at an Isuzu dealership.

Maytag Corp. refreshed its campaign featuring its appliance pitchman by changing the actor who plays him-for the second time since the campaign began in 1967. Actor Jesse White originated the role, and for the last 11 years actor Gordon Jump held the post. The underemployed Maytag Repairman reinforces the reliability of the brand, but the image of the lonely icon had become dusty to 21st-century homeowners who take appliance dependability for granted.

"People didn't identify with this person killing time because there is nothing better to do," said Steffan Postaer, executive creative director at Burnett. So the agency introduced a buff, wholesome-looking apprentice in 33-year-old actor Mark Devine. "Instead of killing time, he's making the most of the time he has by obsessing over this brand's quest for perfection," Mr. Postaer said.

Reliable service also is the quality Wells Fargo bank has emphasized since 1852 through its stagecoach icon. Old Western-style campaigns, produced for years by McCann-Erickson Worldwide, San Francisco, part of Interpublic Group of Cos., portrayed a stagecoach pulled by galloping horses in Old West towns. But now that Wells Fargo is a leading online bank with wireless services, that image is dated.

"There was a disconnect between one of the most forward-thinking financial institutions and the old stores and towns" in previous spots, said Rick Carpenter, president of Omnicom's DDB Worldwide, Los Angeles, which now handles the Wells Fargo account. The new ads allow the stagecoach to be seen as "looking forward rather than looking back and longing for the old days," he said. One recent spot uses a jet sound effect added to footage of the stagecoach making a leap over rough terrain.

After DDB New York Creative Director John Staffen wrote the "Gimme a break" jingle for Hershey Foods Corp.'s Kit Kat bar more than 10 years ago, he never expected the song he thought of as "a nice, cute little feel-good piece" would prove so enduring. Nonetheless, it has worked its way into consumer consciousness. In fact, when DDB was preparing last year for a campaign that broke in January, the agency hired a film crew to ask people on the street to sing the ditty. "Everybody knows that song," said Mr. Staffen.

Yet the very popularity of a campaign can frustrate creative teams who don't necessarily want to rehash an old effort. Although Mr. Staffen said he wanted to figure out how to "wrestle control of the brand back from the public," the song in the most recent campaign is virtually unchanged. "Kit Kat is that song," Mr. Staffen said. "The brand equity is that song."

Mr. Staffen's frustration is not uncommon. Refreshing an established campaign-particularly one created by another agency-can be more challenging to a creative team than coming up with a new concept. "One dynamic is that people, for their own ego reasons, both at the client and on agency teams, want to do something to change," Mr. Gunn said.

Of course, some creatives find satisfaction despite the "been there, done that" feel of revising old campaigns. "To me, it's a challenge. To keep coming up with creative ways to position the brand is the fun part," said Lee Garfinkel, the former co-chairman, CEO and co-chief creative officer at Interpublic's Lowe Lintas & Partners, New York. Mr. Garfinkel speaks from experience-Lowe handles the Perdue account.

Frank Perdue, chairman of the company until 1991, appeared in the company's ads as a spokesman. His son Jim became chairman that year, and Lowe transitioned the spokesman role to him. "We found Frank could basically stand in front of the camera for 30 seconds and talk about chicken and be very engaging. With Jim, he needed someone to play off of," Mr. Garfinkel said. Therefore, most Perdue ads with Jim include other characters.

At Thomson Consumer Electronics' RCA division, the commercial dog icon, nicknamed Nipper, has lived as a logo for 101 years. While the black-and-white dog and its newer pal Chipper remain essential to corporate branding, Jim Gatman, RCA's VP-marketing, said it is important the device doesn't make the electronics company appear too nostalgic. "They're not used in a way that would drag us backwards as an old-fashioned company as opposed to one that's very innovative," he said. Lowe also creates today's spots for RCA, and solved the dilemma by using the dog icons on many occasions as simply a tag at the end of commercials.

Even if a brand device reaches icon status, marketers can find good reason to dismantle it. When Jordan McGrath Case & Partners, New York, now a division of the Arnold Worldwide network of Havas, won Procter & Gamble Co.'s Bounty paper towel business in 1986, it also inherited the 20-year old "Rosie" campaign originally created by Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, New York.

Pat McGrath, chairman-CEO, said the agency tried to modernize the campaign for a couple of years, but eventually dropped it. "We were trying to reach young moms forming households, and Rosie was an older woman in a diner...it lost relevance," Mr. McGrath said.Jordan replaced the Rosie work with a still running "little kids, big spills" campaign.

A new agency also presents marketers with an opportunity to tear down branding icons and start with fresh ideas. Currently under evaluation are Amazon.com's sweatermen and Michelin's babies. Both marketers are conducting reviews for a new ad agency.

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo, Jean Halliday, Kate MacArthur

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