Has PG Tips’ advertising put its brand characters before its sales?

Archana Venkatraman asks if the return of Al and Monkey for PG Tips’ Christmas campaign has failed to boost sales because the advertising is more popular than the Unilever-owned tea brand itself?

Vegas%20%26%20MonkeyPG Tips will mix festive cheer with classic British comedy to inspire a little nostalgia for the Unilever-owned tea brand. It hopes that a Christmas Day ad starring comedian Johnny Vegas and his woolly sidekick Monkey, in a pastiche of the Morecambe and Wise “breakfast” sketch will help to revitalise sales. The ad, which will break at 4pm during ITV’s film premiere, also aims to take share from market leader Tata-owned Tetley.

The strategy is expected to generate a good deal of PR attention and “talkability” around PG Tips, but analysts doubt whether it will fuel sales of the brand. They also say that although consumers have welcomed back Al – the character played by Vegas – and Monkey, this has failed to translate into sales for PG Tips.

Futurebrand senior vice-president of strategy and innovation Adrian Goldthorpe says the advertising is “more popular than the brand itself”.

Perhaps the biggest challenge PG Tips has faced in recent years is moving on from its iconic chimpanzee campaign, which ran for 46 years from 1956. Despite its success in making PG Tips the UK’s number one tea brand, it was felt the ads were not in tune with modern times and the chimps were scrapped in 2002.

Its replacement advertising, featuring a group of plasticine birds, failed to retain the brand’s place in the nation’s heart and it fell from the number one spot. Meanwhile, Unilever reviewed the advertising, moving from DDB London, then Boase Massimi Pollitt and the creators of the chimps, to Mother (MW May 4, 2006).

Tetley is now the leading brand – with a 23% share in 2007 – followed by PG Tips with 21% and Twinings, owned by Associated British Foods, in third spot. One analyst says Tetley has sold itself as a mass-market “premium tea”.

The decision to use Al and Monkey as the face of PG Tips harks back to the chimps, but also plays on the popularity of the pair, who previously fronted a campaign for ITV Digital. The digital terrestrial service failed, but the comedy duo struck a chord with the public.

Datamonitor senior analyst Vickie McRorie says it was “typical” of Unilever to “play the heritage and nostalgia card” rather than try anything new.

Goldthorpe suggests that a more successful strategy would be to focus on bringing back lapsed customers, who have moved on to alternatives such as coffee or smoothies, as PG Tips already has a high degree of brand awareness.

Meanwhile, few believe that initiatives such as linking with the Rainforest Alliance will help increase sales dramatically. McRorie says the deal shows that Unilever has ambitions to follow ethical trends already covered by Fairtrade brands, but believes PG Tips must position itself within the healthier tea segment because “just being a more visible brand than Tetley” will not help it regain market share.

While Christmas TV viewers will undoubtedly enjoy seeing Vegas and Monkey acting like fools, observers say this latest move is simply more of the same from PG Tips. Unilever, they add, is missing a trick by failing to capitalise on the inherent benefits of tea, and instead relying on tried and tested, but ultimately tired, methods. 

Facts and figures

PG Tips 

1930s Brooke launches a tea in the UK under the name of ‘Pre-Gest- Tee’. Grocers abbreviate it to PG, and the company adds ‘Tips’ to highlight the fact that PG uses the top two leaves and a bud to make its tea 

1956 With the launch of ITV, the first PG Tips ‘chimpanzees’ ad appears 

2002 PG Tips launches ad featuring house sharing group of T-Birds 

2007 Ad agency Mother reunites Al (Johnny Vegas) and Monkey (from ITV Digital) 

2008 PG tips joins forces with the Rainforest Alliance 

2008 PG Tips brings back Al and Monkey for a campaign launching on Christmas Day.

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