The Ad Council’s Lisa Sherman sits down with FCB Global’s Susan Credle to pay tribute to the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history and its icon—Smokey Bear.
Lisa Sherman: FCB has been the agency of record for Smokey for 75 years. How have you kept Smokey relevant?
Susan Credle: Smokey might have a better answer than I do. After all, he’s been part of FCB for 75 years, whereas I’ve only been here slightly more than three. I believe that characters like Smokey are timeless because people trust them. They are beloved because they have consistent values and traits that allow us to build a long-term relationship with them. The key to keeping them relevant is making sure they apply those values and traits to current culture and needs.
What can brands and other agencies learn from the success of Smokey?
Smokey is a case study in the value and importance of respecting the equity of a brand. I watch so many marketers walk away from brand equities that they believe are old, tired and worn-out. Brand equities— like characters—suffer from ageism. Too often, we want the shiny new thing instead of seeing the value that comes from being known, understood and trusted. Perhaps because our egos want to create something that is all ours. Maybe because we simply get bored with ideas. Or we believe something fresh will give the business a boost. I always recommend first looking at how equities can be reenergized instead of retired. It’s such a waste of really valuable business capital.
Given where we are with so many media outlets, distractions and purpose-driven marketing campaigns, do you think it’s possible to create an icon like Smokey today?
An iconic character creates lasting, emotional connections with audiences and does so quickly. It holds together all the disparate pieces of today’s fragmented media landscape. And it can authentically express a brand’s purpose. That makes them 3-for-3 in the most critical areas of modern brand-building. No wonder characters like Smokey are more valuable than ever. It can be done today, but only if you’re in it for the long haul. Consumers see through short-term thinking, especially when it comes to relationship-building.
How has the rise of digital given Smokey a voice?
Smokey has always been about educating the public. Data and technology allow Smokey to deliver more timely, accurate and targeted information and more compelling and engaging content to his friends and fans, both young and old.
There is an interesting rule when working with Smokey. He can only say one thing: “Only you can prevent wildfires.” The FCB team created a Smokey emoji that allows people like Stephen Colbert, Al Roker, Jeff Foxworthy and Betty White to speak for Smokey. We think this basic little emoji will allow others to help Smokey educate more people about the importance of protecting the natural environment from wildfires.
What does “purpose” mean to you?
“Purpose” is an interesting word. Like the word “digital,” we use it in many different ways. I have always believed that purpose is simply why a brand exists in the world. Often, I find the word “purpose” being used synonymously with cause marketing. I believe these are two different things. Purpose is why you exist, why you have meaning in people’s lives. Cause marketing is doing good in the world through the lens of your authentic purpose. Sometimes, in the case of Smokey, they coexist. This is usually the case for nonprofits.
What does it mean for your team to work on purpose-driven campaigns?
At FCB, we believe everything we do for our clients should be purpose-driven. That doesn’t mean every campaign will be doing good in the world. But our work for our clients should reflect the purpose of the brand. We have a tool called “Brand Bedrock,” which is our bespoke way of asking, “Why do you exist?” From there, we’ll know what kind of causes we might want to take on to give the brand even more meaning and to create even more brand love.
What’s next for Smokey?
I think we should ask him! After all, Smokey has survived this crazy world of advertising longer than most. As long as those responsible for his well-being continue to honor his past while expanding his relevance and value to contemporary audiences, I’m quite sure he’ll be here long after I’m gone.