When Eva Herzigova first bared herself to motorists back in 1994, Wonderbra suddenly did for under-wired bras what Levi’s had for blue jeans a decade earlier.
The intense media coverage which followed those first glimpses of Eva’s cleavage will go down as one of the most high profile events in marketing history; Wonderbra’s sales were suddenly pushed up by 9,000 to 16,000 a week.
Three years on Wonderbra’s sales have plateaued, according to some sources, although the company claims European sales are rising by an average five per cent each year and now stand at an annual 1.5 million. And although it is still a fashion item it is no longer at the cutting edge. What’s more, Eva is not getting any younger.
The separation of Wonderbra from the ad agency that propelled the brand into the Collins English Dictionary, TBWA – now TBWA/ Simons Palmer – (MW May 29), has revealed skeletons which suggest that Playtex is at a crossroads in terms of where it can take the Wonderbra brand next.
Having just reassigned its Affinity brand into the EURO RSCG network across Europe, Playtex has now also shifted the Wonderbra business, held by TBWA across Europe, into the French group.
On resigning the account (although some inside sources suggest it quit before being pushed) TBWA has been keen to air its frustration over what its Wonderbra team perceived as a lack of direction and investment from Playtex’s headquarters in Rome over recent months.
TBWA/Simons Palmer chief executive officer Paul Simons says: “As an agency we were becoming increasingly demoralised by Playtex’s failure to deliver promises that it would invest in developing the Wonderbra on from the original hype in 1994. Playtex simply refused to buy in any new work and so we eventually lost our enthusiasm and threw the towel in.”
But that raises the question of what EURO RSCG will be able to do within the same, both creative and financial, restraints. Since the advent of Eva in 1994 Playtex has never spent more than 500,000 a year on advertising in the UK. Aside from a few recent initiatives, such as the full-size images of Eva in bus shelters, the rest has been left to the whim of the press.
Susanna Hailstone of Leagas Shafron Davis, one of the original team who worked on the “Hello Boys” campaign at TBWA, says that even back in 1994 it was possible to foresee a time when Wonderbra would have to move on and evolve. “Fashions have changed and Wonderbra is no longer the ultimate sexy fashion item it was. It must now realise that it has to move on and evolve – Eva cannot last forever neither can the media’s interest in her,” says Hailstone.
TBWA claims Playtex continues to lay down strict guidelines to ensure Eva lives on in her original form. The last campaign it developed for Wonderbra involved a giant-sized Eva lying across the side of a bus brushing off lots of little men but it never saw the light of day after Playtex rejected it three times.
The most recent TBWA account manager for Wonderbra, Sam Brookes, says: “We’ve been desperately trying to break a new campaign for Wonderbra but for whatever reason Playtex refuses to budge from the original form.”
In purely fashion terms Victoria Young, an independent design and fashion consultant, believes Wonderbra has had its day. “The Wonderbra era could never hope to be more than a flash in the pan. Everything it stands for is so firmly entrenched in the mid-Nineties. It was a bit of titillation and could never be taken as seriously as a pair of jeans or trainers.”
Playtex’s managing director in Britain, John Dixey, does not accept the fad idea. He says: “Wonderbra has made it into the Collins Dictionary – it has become an icon which is just as powerful as Levi’s jeans. Although the fashion of open shirts and jackets is no longer dictated by Wonderbra it has become an essential part of every woman’s wardrobe.”
He denies that Playtex is not willing to move the brand on. Although Eva continues to represent the original product there are plans to extend the brand into other areas, which will be accompanied by new-look advertising campaigns. A sportswear range, already available in the US, and a Wonderbra for teenagers (MW March 21), are both believed to be in the pipeline as the brand moves more mainstream.
An official statement from the Playtex headquarters in Rome says the reason the company reviewed all its brands, including Wonderbra, into EURO RSCG was to introduce a fresh creative team and allow them to pursue new ideas and images.
Young says the only hope Wonderbra has in its present form is as a niche item because the unique physical and emotional benefits that it once offered are no longer unique. “Longevity in the fashion stakes can only be achieved if the item is good quality and comfortable,” she says.
But even as a niche item Wonderbra must watch out for some formidable competition. Already Eva’s reputation as the queen of bras is being threatened by Gossard’s new younger star, Sophie Anderton.
Playtex needs to have something very special up its sleeve to enable Wonderbra to move into the millennium with credibility and protect its position as “the one and only” in push-up bras.