Behind the Work: Ragu and BFG9000's Tips for Finicky Eaters

Unilever Brand Kept Dialogue Going With Near Real-Time Response Campaign Reminiscent of Old Spice

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Earlier this month, Unilever's Ragu dropped a video on its Facebook page video asking, "What's the most embarrassing thing you've done to get your kid to eat?" It then presented an unconventional solution: a mom wearing braids made of spaghetti on her head. Ragu subsequently asked its fans what else they were seeking in terms of tips for finicky eaters.

Soon enough, questions rolled in from some of Ragu's 900,000 Facebook followers, and within days, Ragu had showcased five of them in fully produced online spots. For example, a fan named April, from Hayward, Calif., asked about how to prevent kids from bickering during mealtime. Ragu responded with another piece of advice: "Feed the evil kid first," with the "evil kid" depicted as a boy with scary magician facial hair painted on his brows, chin and upper lip.

The campaign is one of the first moves for Ragu under the newly appointed Unilever's U.S. Foods Director Mike Dwyer, who previously served as marketing director-U.S. deodorants and Axe brand development director, North America. It's also the first from its new agency BFG9000, which, along with Ragu, was recently awarded a slate of Unilever's business, including brands such as P.F. Changs, Bertolli, Skippy and Wishbone.

Making the Connection
For the foods category overall, Mr. Dwyer said he has two primary goals. He wants his brands to achieve the sort of emotional connectivity that leads to purchase -- something strikingly absent from a category full of utilitarian messages and stereotypical, easygoing depictions of family life. The marketer also wants to become more agile in responding to the changing consumer dynamic -- one that 's more vocal and interactive, thanks to social media.

For Ragu in particular, Mr. Dwyer and his team wanted to assert the brand's position as leader in the marketplace and maintain the conversation with its already robust fan-base. "How do we further expand our social media footprint and be front and present where mom is ?" he said.

To keep the dialogue going, BFG decided to approach the fans from an honest perspective. The "Ragu Asks" platform builds on the brand's already robust Facebook site, already a rich source of conversation for parents, by posing questions in an unabashedly outrageous way.

Outside of "Braids" and the evil kid spot, other video tips, all directed by Bodega's Dave Merhar, show parents coating a piano keyboard with the sauce, dabbing it on lips like lipstick, and having tea parties -- not with English Breakfast, but with Ragu. The scenarios are over the top but exercise enough restraint to hit that perfect note of funny so many other would-be comedy spots fail to reach. They mine the absurdity of real life and, if you're a parent, you'll find it easy to empathize with that quiet desperation that plagues the campaign's child wranglers.

"There's a lot of rich, creative territory around kids and mealtimes," said Agency President Barney Robinson. "It's much easier to paint this romanticized, aspirational ideal of the family. That's why most advertising's quite benign in that respect, so we decided to go after the truth. And what better way to get to the truth than to ask the 900,000 -- now over a million -- fans their stories?" Said BFG 9000 founder Chief Creative Officer Gerry Graf, "After running brands like P&G and General Mills, I found a lot of brands that most marketing to moms present this kind of glorified, Utopian, moms who can do everything version of it all, but in our collective experience at BFG, we found that when you actually talk to people the way their lives really are, they tend to listen."

Ragu Does Not Smell Like Old Spice
And, while the near real-time dynamic might seem to smell of Old Spice's famous "Response" campaign, "The experience was totally different," says BFG 9000 ECD Eric Kallman, who had worked on that project at his former shop Wieden + Kennedy Portland. "I understand why people might make the comparison, but I'd never done anything like this. Ragu was maybe the biggest endeavor I've been part of , as far as the production value." While Old Spice was shot in real time, with relatively the same setup, Ragu's films are full-on productions, featuring multiple cuts and camera angles, different settings, a variety of cast members and complete story arcs. Moreover, unlike Old Spice, "we worked with the client through every aspect, from approval and tweaking of the scripts, all the way through the shooting, the editing, like the normal process, but it just all happened at once," said Mr. Kallman.

One similarity, however, was the tight turnaround. Two spots to tease the campaign were shot ahead of time. The first was presented to Ragu's Facebook community at around 3 p.m. By 4, the agency had enough material to start writing scripts. Ideas were presented to the client by 9. The agency continued to refine the ideas and create more through the night, and began shooting by 8 a.m. the following day. Around 2 that afternoon, the first spot was taken live online, with four others rolled out in short intervals afterwards.

To facilitate things, the agency cast a large stable of actors to be pulled as needed. All the shoots were done in a single house with kitchen and dining areas large enough to accommodate different setups. Every room buzzed with activity -- a shoot was happening in one, while setups or editing and pow-wows with the client were happening in others. "It was entire cottage industry in one house," said Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Graf said that on the roll-out it helped that Director-Digital/Integrated Creative Dean McBeth, Kallman's former Old Spice colleague at Wieden, mapped out a plan on how the work would be seeded, from the initial teaser video to the newly created responses. Through that , the "digital Darwinism of the internet" became apparent and revealed the more popular of the videos, helping the client pick which spots should be promoted via additional media buy," said Mr. Robinson.

The jury's out on whether the spots will see a life on the tube, said Unilever's Mr. Dwyer. "It's something we're considering, but at this point we're aiming more for participation, not awareness. Our main goal was to create a deeper connection online and build that fan base," he said.

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