There’s a science to being cute, according to U.K. biscuit (cookie) maker McVities whose high profile “Sweeet” campaign this week enters its second year with a £3m “Sweeet Friends” cuddly toy giveaway and central London pop-up “cuddle café” launched on February 11.
The campaign grew out of McVities owner United Biscuits’ desire for a master brand campaign to promote all McVities products. The end result, conceived by Grey London, kicked off in February 2014 with an ad in which a family is surprised and delighted by the unexpected emergence cuddly puppies from a packet of McVities Digestive biscuits.
Subsequent executions have included nurses entranced by fluffy kittens which tumble from a packet of Chocolate Digestives, and a teenager captivated by the orange-eyed tarsier which appears among his Jaffa Cakes. Then the Christmas ad, for McVities’ Victoria selection box, pushed the boat out with a variety of cute animals which included a baby narwhal.
At the heart of “Sweeet” is the notion of badging the moment of opening a packet of biscuits, rather than the biscuit itself.
“The insight that the campaign is built on is that while biscuits are utterly trivial they are also immensely powerful, as everyone likes those shared moments when having a biscuit brings people together,” McVities brand director Matt Brown explains.
Like other players in the market, McVities’ previous advertising had focused on functional benefits. Trouble was, sales of sweet biscuits in the UK has been falling for some time. So the brand owner set out to rekindle people’s interest by playing on emotions.
At the time the creative strategy was being developed, there was much media debate about the popularity of online animal videos and the enduring appeal of cute. Grey’s idea was to brand the moment of box-opening “sweeet” and associate different products according to their quality with sweet-looking cuddly animals.
The idea’s simplicity ensured it early buy-in from the brand owner–the only real creative debate concerning whether the creatures should remain within or emerge from the packets.
“We loved the concept from the start, though it broke the mould in biscuit advertising so in that respect I suppose you could say we were brave,” Brown says. “A big appeal was the long-term potential of the creative framework: an overarching theme in ‘sweet’ and different biscuits represented by different cuddly creatures which, together, would lead to a recognizable ‘family’ of ads.”
From day one, the aim was to create a campaign that would be long-running and high impact, according to Grey London executive creative director Nils Leonard.
“We tend to have less of a long-term holistic approach to creating campaigns here in the UK compared with the approach more often taken by agencies in the U.S.,” he says. “So we set out to build something with scale that had entertainment value which was brash and instant.”
There can be a fine line between sweet and sickly, Leonard readily admits. In this case, however, balance was struck by not taking things too seriously.
“I guess you could say the guiding principle when it comes to developing new ads in the campaign is to try to go too far. Why have one cute cat when you can have eleven? It’s about trying not to be too clever about it–just shoot each animal as cute as you can, then hammer it some more,” he explains.
Often, when you’re asked to “connect” with the audience what you end up doing is reigning things in which can take the edge of something, Leonard points out.
“But the joy in this is because it is ridiculous. We literally turned the biscuit into a puppy that then gets eaten–and there is something genuinely dark and funny about that,” he believes. “We are not trying to create art. We are not trying to move the audience with cuteness. There is no emotional journey involving a small kid. This is advertising that knows it’s advertising.”
It’s also advertising that has worked.
McVities’ share by value of the sweet biscuits market in the U.K. has risen from 23% to 26% since the campaign’s start. And gross retail sales have grown £18.3m. Furthermore, 38 out of 40 tracked image statements for McVities–including “It’s a brand I love” and “It’s a brand I’d recommend”–have trended “significantly upwards.”
Which is why, Brown adds, the time is right for “Sweeet Friends”–a £3 million, 35-million-pack promotional cuddly toy giveaway. The strategy, devised by Grey Shopper, is all about allowing consumers their own piece of the campaign while stoking retailer support to drive in-store purchase.
“It’s an adman’s dream: to have created something that’s broken beyond advertising into popular culture,” Leonards admits. Though he’s not about to sit back on his creative laurels.
“Sometimes agencies can be their own worst enemies–killing an idea they’ve tired of before the audience grows bored,” he adds. “For all involved, the joy–and the challenge–of this campaign will be to let people enjoy it while they want to enjoy it but then to move it on just before they start to not enjoy it any more.”