Britvic Tango’s Kay as brand loses fizz

Last week was not a good one for marketing directors, with three high-profile names – including Tango’s Steve Kay – out of a job.

You know when you’ve been Tango’d,” crows soft drink maker Britvic, and now so does its marketing director, Steve Kay, who has unexpectedly found himself without a job (MW September 13).

Kay was one of a clutch of high-profile marketing directors who felt the sharp lash of rejection this week. Raoul Pinnell at NatWest bank lost his job amid a wide-ranging restructure, while Samantha Smith, UK marketing director at fast-food chain Burger King, also lost hers and is apparently looking for a job with-in the company’s parent group, Grand Metropolitan.

All three were “names”: they were known within the marketing and advertising industry as regular attendees of conferences and industry dinners, and for giving lectures and seminars. In Kay’s case he was also known for his appearance in a national TV advertising campaign for Tango.

The departures, particularly of Kay, caused surprise among observers. There had been uncertainty over Pinnell’s role at NatWest for some time. This was fuelled by a growing suspicion that he was frustrated by the entrenched bureaucracy of the bank’s approach to marketing and his consequent inability to make the impact he would have liked.

It is likely that Samantha Smith’s role has been under threat since Chris Smith took over as general manager at Burger King – there are no other country marketing directors in Europe, where a general manager post exists.

Kay, however, appeared to be riding high. The Tango campaign through HHCL & Partners has become a byword, at least among ad agencies, for its innovative, cutting-edge style which propelled a hitherto unregarded brand into the realms of a marketing icon.

Earlier this year Britvic announced plans to triple the size of the Tango brand over the next five years. The company claimed a total investment of over 120m over this period and there was a hint about increasing distribution throughout Europe.

Although figures like this should always be treated with caution, unless the company is prepared to break them down, it appeared that the company was on the offensive rather than the defensive.

Yet its much-hyped success is not all that the company and its ad agency crack it up to be.

Some observers close to the company say it has lost out to its rivals in recent months.

“It’s beginning to wear. After Tango, every fizzy pop has to have an anarchic advertising campaign, so what Coca-Cola did around

Euro 96 and the Olympics really stood out as being much more relevant, much more real,” says one source.

The company claims Tango volume sales are up ten per cent from last year, but Nielsen figures for the non-mixer carbonate market supplied to Marketing Week show Tango’s volume share is up seven per cent compared with last year. Furthermore, they show volume sales of Tango fell in July, when, because of summer, they should be at their highest.

If declining sales were not the reason, why did Kay go? Britvic will only say he joined the company (from Carlsberg) to raise the profile of the company and its marketing. He did that, and having done so it was time to go.

Kay, normally the most talkative of marketing directors, was uncharacteristically quiet when Marketing Week tracked him down last week. This is almost certainly because he is still in the throes of negotiating his severance pay from Britvic.

“It was between myself and the managing director. I will say a lot of people both internally and externally were surprised by my departure,” was all he would say.

What is clear, is that Kay did not leave Britvic because he felt he’d completed his task. Instead, it appears from sources close to the company as well as from his own remarks, that his leaving was acrimonious.

Certainly it was unexpected: none of the outside service agencies contacted this week by Marketing Week had prior knowledge of Kay’s departure.

Already, the process of erasing the past has begun at Britvic. An enquiry to the company about sales of Tango in recent months elicited the unprompted remark that the “main driving force behind Tango, of course, has always been David Atter, the marketing manager”. Not his boss, Kay, then.

A number of sources also pointed out that it wasn’t Kay who commissioned the original, ground-breaking advertising campaign from HHCL & Partners.

“It was Tony Hillier’s idea back in September 1991 to employ HHCL and it was he who wrote the brief for the advertising agency. From that brief they came up with ‘You know when you’ve been Tango’d’,” says David Dean, the former senior brand manager on Tango. He also points out that the packaging changes and the no discounting pricing policy began before Kay arrived.

Such attempts to erase Kay from Tango’s marketing history may be an exercise in damage limitation, but the fact remains that Kay or not, someone will need to take responsibility for putting the fizz back into Tango.

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