Evolution of The Brand Protagonist [1950s - Today]

evolution of the brand protagonistGrowing up I was always fascinated by the larger than life characters in advertising.  The most memorable for me was the Marlboro Man.  I wanted to be him.  It was a different age.

For those of you too young to remember, the Marlboro Man was the epitome of manliness, a man’s man.  He represented the spirit of the era at the time. He appealed to consumers like me.

Other famous classic “brand protagonists” included Commander Whitehead of Schweppes and The Hathaway man (eye patch man); both created by David Ogilvy during his early days as an adman.

Role of the Brand Protagonist

Brand protagonists have one role; to sell more products or services by mirroring society’s values and beliefs.  As the decades rolled by, they adapted accordingly. Sometimes, if they were charismatic enough, they even influenced culture.

Throughout the decades one thing remained a constant; a brilliant underlying storyline at the heart of each campaign.

As these brand protagonists took center stage, they captured the imagination and influenced the buying habits of consumers the world over.

Most protagonists at the time were men.  Back then it was thought that men could appeal to women.  Studies since have shown, without a shadow of a doubt, that consumers relate to their own sex when it comes to advertising. Read this
if you don’t believe me (I do get a commission if you buy the book ;)).

Take a stroll with me down memory lane to re-visit some brilliant campaigns.  I’ve highlighted 5 brand protagonists who in my opinion represent the best of the best. They provide an accurate barometer for the evolution of the brand protagonist.

1950s – Birth of the Brand Protagonist

The 1950s saw the birth of the brand protagonist.  It was the era when TV overtook Print as the predominant medium of advertising.  All of a sudden, brands became 3-dimensional.  Below are the most successful brand protagonists of that era.  Some were so successful, they transcended the constraints of time and stayed relevant through many decades to follow.

The Man in the Hathaway Shirt (Eye Patch Man)

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The character was created by David Ogilvy during his early days as an adman. The man with the eye patch was Baron George Wrangel, a descendant of Russian and Italian royalty.

Baron George was working as an artist’s model before advertising executive David Ogilvy chose him for the Hathaway advertisements in the late 1940s. He became the Man in the Hathaway Shirt.

The ad execution was print only and is today voted the 22nd best ad by Ad Age.

Underlying storyline: A debonaire Russian aristocrat with a mysterious past. Why does he have an eye patch? No one really knows but he wears Hathaway shirts.  Brilliant!

First appeared: appeared for the first time in the New Yorker of September 22, 1951.

Agency: Ogilvy & Mather

Client: C. F. Hathaway Company

Brand: Hathaway Shirts

Impact on sales: It made Hathaway shirts an instant success and catapulted the company to the #1 selling dress shirt brand in the United States.

Interesting fact: Hathaway’s president, Ellerton Jette, confessed to advertising research director, David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather, that the account would never be a large one, but promised he would never fire the agency or change a word of copy. The first ad insertion ran in the The New Yorker and cost only $3,176.The eye-patch (cost: 50 cents) was Ogilvy’s idea.

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The Schweppes Man (Commander Whitehead)

Another brilliant David Ogilvy creation for Schweppes tonic water.  Instead of creating a fictional character to be the face of Schweppes, Ogilvy used Commander Edward Whitehead, an executive of Schweppes who came to the U.S. to oversee American distribution of Schweppes tonic water.

Underlying storyline: Commander Whitehead, whom Time once described as an “engaging walrus,” ingratiated himself with Americans as he espoused his products’ unique “Schweppervescence.” When asked what beverage he preferred to drink, the Commander replied “Schweppervescence! Of course!,” because Schweppes Tonic Water had “Those remarkable little bubbles that last the whole drink through.”

First Appeared: US in 1955 (continued through the early 70′s)

Agency: Ogilvy & Mather

Client: Cadbury (Schweppes)

Brand: Schweppes

Brand strategy rationale: Schweppes “curiously refreshing” Tonic Water is the perfect accompaniment for every cocktail parties.

Impact on sales: According to the company, by 1962, foreign operations accounted for one-fifth of the company’s net sales.

Late 50′s through the mid 90s: The Age of TV

From the late 50′s and into the early 90s, TV remained the predominant medium for advertising.  Print continued to decline and the need for charismatic dynamic and exciting brand protagonists continued.  Some of the successful brand protagonists created in the 50′s continued to appeal to generations through the 60s 70s 80s and even 90s.  The most famous of these is the Marlboro Man.

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The Marlboro Man

The Marlboro Man was created in 1954 by famous adman Draper Daniels (real life Don Draper) of Leo Burnett.

The Marlboro Man was an achievement because it found success at a time when Americans were learning that cigarettes were genuinely dangerous, addictive products that could kill you.

The Marlboro Man transformed the brand from a mild ladies’ cigarette into a rugged ultra-masculine accessory.

Underlying storyline: Hardworking cowboy(s) in nature enjoying a Marlboro cigarette after a long day’s work.

First appeared: The Marlboro Man first appeared in 1954.  The campaign ran in one form or another through the 60s, 70s, 80s and early nineties, transforming the character into a cultural icon.  In the early 70s cigarette advertising on TV was outlawed, much to the dismay our our cowboy protagonist. It continued in print till the early nineties.

Agency: Leo Burnett

Client: Philip Morris

Brand: Marlboro Cigarettes

Brand strategy rationale:  A person’s cigarette could speak to his or her self image.

Impact on Sales:  In 1955 when the Marlboro Man campaign was started, sales were at $5 billion. By 1957, sales were at $20 billion, representing a 300% increase within two years.

Interesting fact: Sadly, the three actors who played the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer. One sued Phillip Morris and the cigarettes became known colloquially as “cowboy killers”.

2000 – 2009: Search Makes the Internet a Reality

By the early “naughties”, the internet had become a reality, presenting new challenges to advertisers.  We had already seen the first internet bubble burst and Google was now the undisputed king of search. It began challenging traditional advertising models with it’s revolutionary ad targeting based on search behavior, aka “Adwords“.

The brand protagonist had to adapt across multiple mediums, not just print, radio and TV. For the brand protagonist to survive, he had to appeal to fragmented audiences with little to no attention span. Transmedia Storytelling became the new buzzword and advertisers were scrambling to adapt the brand protagonist to this new and exciting age.  Two brand protagonists  born in that era are The Dos Equis Man and the Old Spice Guy.  Below are their stories.

Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World

The Dos Equis ” Most Interesting Man in the World” was created by ad agency Euro RSCG.

The TV commercials cleverly combine grainy, vintage footage showcasing the Most Interesting Man’s manly feats. A story narrator passionately recites to us the Man’s legendary exploits. The ad copy on these commercials is probably among the best written in ad history:

Underlying storyline:  Dos Equis “The most interetsing Man int he World” is a cult hero. He is an adventurer at heart and regularly  takes part in “manly” pursuits like Acapulco cliff diving, jai alai, and falconry.  His leathery suntanned skin contributes to the mystery behind Dos Equis’ thrilling outdoor adventures.

First Appeared: In the US in 2006

Agency: Euro RSCG

Client: Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery

Brand: Dos Equis

Brand strategy rationale:

“He is a man rich in stories and experiences, much the way the audience hopes to be in the future. Rather than an embodiment of the brand, The Most Interesting Man is a voluntary brand spokesperson: he and Dos Equis share a point of view on life that it should be lived interestingly.”

Impact on sales: According to the company, sales of Dos Equis are said to have increased by 22% at a time when sale of other imported beer fell 4% in the U.S

2010 – Present: The Brand Protagonist in a New Social Age

Social media is now the new king. The rules have officially changed. The age of interruption is over.  Engagement advertising is now the new norm.  Transmedia storytelling is now a must.  A new breed of brand protagonist now appeared.

Characteristics: First off, he’s black, not heard of in the 50s! The new brand protagonist does not take himself too seriously.  He is funny and very very charismatic.  The one protagonist that embodies the characteristics of this new era is the Old Spice Guy.

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The Old Spice Guy

The Old Spice Guy aka “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was created by ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. He was played by actor Isaiah Mustafa.

The campaign targets female viewers, despite the product’s target market being male, as the company determined that women frequently make purchasing decisions in respect of hygiene products even for male household members.

The campaign was launched with two commercials: The primary 30-second spot, and a shorter 15-second companion piece, both written by Craig Allen and Eric Kallman of Wieden+Kennedy. The spots promote Old Spice’s Red Zone After Hours Body Wash.

Underlying storyline: The Old Spice Man is found in various settings addressing viewers in a confident, rapid-fire monologues which promote the benefit of using Old Spice products.  There is always a surprise ending.

First appeared: February 8th 2010 as a 30 second spot supported by a 15 second teaser.

Agency: Wieden & Kennedy

Client: P&G

Brand: Old Spice

Brand strategy rationale:  Old Spice is confident and sexy.  So is its consumer. Simple.

Impact on sales: It doubled them!

What does the Future hold for Brand Protagonists?

Who knows, but one thing is for certain;  they better have a good story to tell!

Further Recommended Reading

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