Why bringing back old characters such as Captain Birdseye could alienate millennials

With Captain Birdseye returning to British TV screens today (8 April) as part of Birds Eye new £8m campaign, both brands and experts have warned that the risk can sometimes outweigh the rewards when it comes to bringing back an iconic advertising character.

In the latest ad, a heavily bearded Captain appears on his fishing boat – looking somewhat like the Captain at the helm of the doomed Titanic – to wave at a boy (with a tail, no less) who is rushing home for a family dinner of fish fingers.

Over recent years, Birds Eye has made a habit of refreshing the Captain, who was first introduced in the 1960s. For example, the character, which has been recast for the new campaign, was brought back again only two years ago before quickly being axed for being ‘outdated.’

However, Birds Eye marketing director Steve Chantry says the Captain is now back for the long term and that this will be the first of many TV appearances.

In particular, Chantry is confident the historic character will help recruit younger buyers to the frozen foods category – a stark change from the brand’s previous ‘outdated’ assessment.

“The Captain remains our most loved and recognised icon. He hasn’t been on TV for some time but we have all grown up with him and he’s the most iconic asset for our brand,” he explains.

“Our desire is to make him as exciting and relevant for the next generation of kids. He already resonates with the next generation of mums – our market research clearly slows that. The question now is can we use him for a recruitment device?”

The risk

Vince Kerrigan, strategic solutions manager at agency Vital Communications, says brands with established advertising characters face alienating millennials by simply rehashing the past.

He explains: “The overuse of characters when marketing a brand can indeed be a risky strategy if they are not used properly to enhance the brand.

“The key when reintroducing previous brand mascots to the millennial audience is to constantly reinvent. There’s no use just bringing back the old advert from 20 years ago and expect it to have the same appeal because it quite simply won’t.”

A man who knows more about introducing iconic advertising characters than most is Go Compare’s head of broadcast and delivery Nick Hall. He was part of the team that introduced the financial comparison brand’s Gio Compario – the portly character played by opera singer Wynne Evans, who sings the Go Compare jingle – back in August 2009.

“We sell insurance, we’re not selling iPhones, and we don’t have a high street presence so the brief was very much to build the brand from a low base,” he remembers. “It is very rare that you create a UK phenomenon – the character transformed the brand and made us a household name. For our latest ad we hit 98% of the nation so that speaks volumes of Gio’s impact.”

Go Compare axed the advertising character Gio Compario for 18 months only to bring him back

At the height of Compario’s fame, he filled the 90-second ‘Proud to Present’ advertising slot on ITV.

Hall, however, admits that the character has become “Marmite” among viewers, with polls regularly crowning him the most annoying TV ad character of all time. He advises brands to tread carefully when bringing back old characters and not to overuse them.

“Perhaps Gio became Marmite and was used a bit too much,” Hall adds.

“As a marketer you cannot just dust off an old character. Clever brands look at the iconic character asset they’ve got and think ‘how can I update them?’. You look at brands such as PG Tips and they were using real monkeys but now they use animated puppets. It is a big risk if you don’t reinvent and Birds Eye will hopefully be aware of that.”

Reinventing a character

Following accusations of the ads being too annoying, Go Compare actually axed Gio Compario and he was off air for 18 months before being brought back last summer in an ad that spoofed the criticism.

Moving forward, however, Hall says the brand will ensure Gio Compario is tapping into current trends.

“If you just bring back an old icon that carries old themes will it resonate with a modern consumer? That’s what we’re asking ourselves.”

Nick Hall, head of broadcast and delivery, Go Compare

“Demands and needs change, especially when advertising is now catering for such a digital audience.

“If you redrevelop a character it will work more effectively and that’s what we’re doing with Gio, who will now appear in various guises from the summer onwards. Who knows, maybe he will rap?”

The reward

Kerrigan of Vital Communciations says the biggest reward from utilising existing advertising characters is the heritage they can symbolise.

It can, he says, establish an emotional connection other brands struggle to find.

“Heritage is important for brands as it establishes an emotional connection with audiences, as well as helping form a platform to communicate core brand values. While brands shouldn’t just rely on what has worked in the past, using it as a way to reinvent itself can be beneficial when targeting new audiences in an emotional sense.”

Ultimately, Go Compare’s Hall cannot understand why brands such as Birdseye and Admiral, which recently cast the first woman as its main brand character, would choose not to utilise an iconic character should it be at their disposal.

He concludes: “What would be the point [of axing a character]? People love to hate Gio Compario but more people are talking about our advertising than ever before and he has made us into a househould brand.

“The worst kind of advertising is vanilla advertising that doesn’t make the consumer feel anything or cause a reaction; it is a waste of money. Characters will guarantee conversation.”

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email customerservices@marketingweek.com

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here