Blast from the past

Advertising icons from the past, including British Gas’s Sid and the Michelin man, are being brought out of retirement as leading companies seek to make best use of the assets while tapping into the British public’s insatiable appetite for nostalgia. Matthew Gorman reports

tomstoneFormer British Gas character Sid is the latest brand icon to be brought out of retirement following npower’s decision to "kidnap" him to use in its own advertising (MW last week). And he is in good company.

Michelin is resurrecting the 109-year-old Michelin man for a new television campaign, while Cadbury’s "Flake girl", who featured in a long-running campaign that was recently voted the nation’s favourite in an ITV poll, is returning after a five-year absence. The Diet Coke hunk has also been revived and film director Michael Winner can once again be seen promoting insurance company Esure.

Bringing back icons is a growing trend and companies without their own are reviving someone else’s. As well as npower stealing Sid, ITV Digital’s Monkey can now be found extolling the virtues of PG Tips tea alongside Johnny Vegas.

Reviving a famous icon from the past can make good business sense, according to Grant Duncan, chief executive of Publicis, the agency behind the new Flake girl ad that breaks this week.

"To get a successful advertising property is extremely hard," he says. "You just have to look at the number of campaigns that change each year because they haven’t been successful and haven’t resonated with the public. When you get one, you don’t throw it away. The challenge is to keep it fresh."

The cost benefits of bringing back an old icon also make the idea of reviving an instantly recognisable image very appealing. Duncan adds/ "You don’t have to spend huge amounts of media money. You spend less on ads and you don’t have to climb mountains of empathy. It’s also a good way of tapping into a sense of nostalgia people have. It can create a warm feeling of memories of our youth. Having a single recognisable property, and one as recognisable as the Flake girl, is invaluable."

Duncan points out that the trend spreads way beyond the advertising industry. He cites the Mini Cooper and covers of pop songs as other examples of nostalgic resurrection and adds: "I think reviving things is just something quite British. We’re a very nostalgic society but you have to refresh it in a proper way."

Gerry Moira, director of UK creativity at Euro RSCG, agrees that it can be a good idea to revive what you already have.

He says: "It’s hard to reach the investment you had in the 1970s and 1980s. If you can re-use what you have, why wouldn’t you, because marketing costs so much more money these days? To launch a packaged goods product, for instance, takes enormous investment. Reviving makes good sense. It’s like re-using bricks to build a new house."

Critics have accused agencies and brands that turn to old characters of being lazy and unoriginal. But Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton agrees with Moira that the cost savings make it an attractive option. "Companies are looking back at the assets they have got to see if there is anything in the back of the drawer or the filing cabinet which was put away before its time. You can build up a strong icon or idea and can end up changing just because you’ve changed the creative team or agency and not because it’s no longer valuable."

Michelin is resurrecting its famous brand icon, which was created in 1898, for a new advertising push that breaks at the start of next month. The tyre company’s head of marketing, Thierry Rudloff, says 83% of people in the UK recognise the Michelin man, and in 2000 it was named advertising icon of the century by the Financial Times.

In his latest incarnation, the Michelin man has been slimmed down, and Rudloff says: "We’ve refreshed him because he’s a key asset for us. We’ve slimmed him down because it shows the evolution of people and is a way of keeping up with changes in society. He demonstrates the evolution of society but also the evolution of the brand and the world we live in."

The suggestion that bringing back an icon from the past shows a lack of originality is unfair, according to Euro RSCG’s Moira. He says: "I certainly wouldn’t say it’s creatively lazy. I don’t think it’s a creative issue – it’s a media issue. In a time of media fragmentation, hanging on to what you have can make sense because you can spend a lot of money on getting something new. It’s not that creatives can’t come up with ideas – it’s down to budget restraints."

Publicis’ Duncan agrees, adding: "It’s commercial good sense to revive. An icon is an asset, a piece of intellectual property, which can be revitalised in a modern way."

monkeyIcons can also be brought back to promote a different brand. Monkey, which was used to launch ITV Digital in the late 1990s, is an example of what Moira calls "an advertising vehicle without a brand". In the case of npower, Sid, which was last used a generation ago, had not been registered as a trademark by the Government on behalf of British Gas.

But Sid was always a faceless "icon", whose name featured in print and TV campaigns but who was never actually revealed. Npower has decided to give him a face and has styled Sid as a customer who is stuck in the 1980s, but who should move on and switch to npower as he will be "better off". He sports a Miami Vice-style suit and a huge mobile phone.

Npower, which mimicked the British Gas flames with its gas and electricity orbs last year, says it intends to use Sid as a long-running brand icon in what looks set be another bitter price war in the utilities sector.

Npower head of customer marketing Kevin Peake says the company did not go out to steal the character but stumbled upon him by chance. "A lot of people feel a sense of loyalty to British Gas but don’t realise how much they can save," adds Peake. "A lot of people we are targeting have been with British Gas since it was privatised 20 years ago."

The feeling in the industry is that reviving an old icon can pay dividends if it is done in the right way. There are a host of brands and agencies hoping that the affection the British public once felt for these characters is still there today.

Brand icons resurrected in 2007

1959    Cadbury Flake girl
1986     British Gas character Sid (now npower)
1990s    Diet Coke hunk
1998    ITV Digital’s Monkey (now PG Tips)
2002     Michael Winner for Esure


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