How Kraft Created a Product From Scratch and Is Using a Puppet to Sell it

New Character 'Mel' Battles Low Self-Esteem, Identity Crisis in Debut Campaign for MilkBite Bars

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For a company that sells some 50,000 products, Kraft Foods has relatively few brand mascots. There's the Kool-Aid Man, of course, and Mr. Peanut. Beyond that , however, the star power starts to dim. Ever heard of Cheesasaurus Rex? Or Polly-O Parrot?

But a new character is coming, one that the marketing giant hopes will be more A-list than D-list and whose quirky personality will be counted on to help launch one of Kraft 's biggest new products bets of the year. He is "Mel," a puppet created by Jim Henson Creature Shop and Droga5 to push a first-of -its kind refrigerated milk-and-granola bar called MilkBite that Kraft debuted in grocery stores late last year.

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Mel is no Jolly Green Giant, that 's for sure. He stands only 6 inches tall, battles low self-esteem and will deal with identity issues in ads debuting next week. He's having an "existential crisis," said Michelle Lorge, the brand's senior manager. "He's trying to figure out what he is -- part milk, part granola," she said. And through that "self journey," he is "telling the product story," she added.

In one spot, Mel confronts his parents who are, naturally, a glass of milk and a bowl of granola. "You didn't think, did you," he tells them. "You didn't think what life was going to be like for me ... for your son!"

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In another spot, he is on a date (with a human). "Your profile said you were milk," says the woman, "but you just look like granola." And that 's too much for Mel to take, so he slinks off in shame, as she yells, "I'm kinda into it."

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The campaign is backed with significant spending, including ads on broadcast and network TV. Online executions include Mel's first-person "video diaries" on the brand's Facebook page.

Mel's Facebook page.
Mel's Facebook page.

The bars were created by Kraft researcher Gary Smith, who got the idea one morning when he and his daughter left home in a hurry without time for their usual breakfast cereal. That evening he began experimenting, baking granola with cheese. After years of tinkering at an R&D lab in suburban Chicago, Kraft finally came up with the final product: Granola bars baked in real milk (not cheese) and stored in the refrigerator, which Kraft says keeps them moist and gives the calcium equivalent of an eight-ounce glass of milk. "And then [R&D] said to marketing, what do we do with this?" said Jill Baskin, senior director of advertising for the Kraft Cheese division. Kraft marketers figured the bars could fill a need for people looking for a "healthier, better-tasting snack bar," Ms. Baskin said. But Kraft was stumped on the marketing strategy.

So the company turned to Droga5, bringing an agency onboard sooner than it might usually. (Droga5 had earlier been added to the Kraft roster as the agency for the Athenos line of Mediterranean foods.)

With 100 new granola bars entering the category on an average year, Droga5 "helped us realize that milk was really the defining quality that made it different from other bars," Ms. Baskin said. And the agency, not Kraft , actually came up with the MilkBite name. But how to advertise them?

The category is overrun with images of hikers and mountain bikers, so the agency was drawn toward an idea that would break through that clutter with an emotional connection, said Droga5 Creative Director January Vernon, who had previously worked on the agency's Athenos campaign.

As for Mel, "The initial creative idea stems from the fact that there's an inherent duality in the product itself that could be a little confusing," said Ms. Vernon. "That led us to an existential crisis. We didn't [want] him to be a ham-fisted Kool-Aid man or an overzealous Tony the Tiger. We thought it would be more funny if we created a meeker, Woody Allen type of character who could tell you about this product in a way that wasn't so overbearing."

To bring Mel to life, the agency tapped Jim Henson's Creature Shop, known, of course, for helping populate Sesame Street , but also for creating characters for brands such as John West, Levi's and Toyota.

One of the initial challenges was deciding on Mel's final look. MilkBite is slated to roll out in four different flavors: strawberry, mixed berry, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin and chocolate. Kraft and the agency decided Mel was to be of the strawberry variety. That posed a problem: how to incorporate the fruit. "When we went to try to capture the strawberries, the paint samples looked a little like he was bleeding or it was tomato sauce or a pizza thing," said Creature Shop creative director Jason Weber. In the end, the puppetmakers opted to create a plain bar (made of foam) adorned with a brilliant red outfit (of red jersey) as a nod to the strawberry bar's real wrapper (mylar).

Three different puppets were built to portray Mel. Initially, the Creature Shop started off with a hand puppet -- the sort that lends itself most to emoting, said Mr. Weber. "You can create some interesting expressions -- a pucker, a sneer. It's really surprising how much emotion you can give to the character with your hand."

During the build, however, the agency and client decided that Mel needed to appear in his real-life pipsqueak proportions alongside the human players, without the cost of doing a lot of green screening and postproduction. So two weeks into the job, Henson created two more miniature puppets, running about six-inches high, give or take a few inches for his legs. The Creature Shop enlisted puppeteer Jim Kroupa to add special mechanisms to the tiny versions to give them as much emotional range as their larger, more malleable counterpart.

On set, Mel was played by puppeteer Ryan Dillon, along with an assistant. To direct, the agency enlisted David Shane of production company O Positive, known for his expertise in comedy and dialogue. Mel was Shane's first puppet thespian, but "he's like a lot of people in that he's a little uncomfortable in his own skin -- or felt -- which makes him so relatable," said Mr. Shane. "I love that his psychic wounds are all self-inflicted. He's kind of looking for slights and insults where there aren't any. In so many ways, he's more human than 99% of the so-called 'people' in other commercials."

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