"Let me get this straight. . . you want my commercial to start with my competitors tagline?"
That was the president's response when I presented the idea. Actually, I couldn't blame him. It was a radical approach.
I hadn't even heard of Sorrell Ridge Fruit Spread when we were first invited to pitch the account. The company manufactured spreadable fruit (jelly, as far as I was concerned) that sold in health food stores. Now, the small unknown brand prepared for battle on the grocery shelves of America.
The main competitor and undisputed leader in the category was Smucker's. Not only was Smucker's the undisputed leader, they had a positive, 30-year old brand image. Their ad budget was probably 40 times that of Sorrell Ridge. And their tagline, "With a name like Smucker's it has to be good", was one of the most famous in advertising history. The more I thought about it, the more I cringed. To say we needed a kick-ass campaign was an understatement.
Prior to the presentation I had been given a crash course in jam manufacturing. It included a revelation about the questionable ingredients in most jams, including Smucker's Preserves. Like most of the American public, Smucker's was a product I had enjoyed all my life. It never occurred to me that I was eating mostly corn syrup and refined sugar. Sorrell Ridge, on the other hand, was 100% fruit and fruit juice. I pondered the comparison. Corn syrup and refined sugar wasn't exactly nicotine and carcinogenic chemicals, nevertheless, it was still a significant competitive difference worth leveraging.
Still, going against Smucker's was going against Mom and apple pie. It was almost un-American. If attempted, the key would be the execution. Anything heavy handed, or mean-spirited, would backfire. Sorrell Ridge did have a great product, but they had another great benefit -- an entrepreneurial president who wasn't afraid to kick butt.
As I wrestled with the challenge before me, I couldn't get the Smucker's tagline out of my head; With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good...it has to be good...it has to be good. It just reminded me that my idea had to be good.
"You're joking, right?" was the president's immediate reaction to the idea I just presented."You want my commercial to start with my competitors tagline?"
I gulped. With storyboard in sweaty hand I knew my answer would make or break the whole thing. I tried to act in control. Fortunately, I actually knew what I was talking about:
"When people think of Smucker's what do they think of? They think of the tagline. That's Smucker's equity. For 30 freakin' years they've been telling us, 'With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good.' It's cute. It's memorable. And it's bullshit."
My knees were shaking. I was convinced that my idea, if done right, could put both Sorrell Ridge and our start-up agency on the map. I forged ahead:
"We have a minuscule budget and zero brand awareness. Smucker's is the "Goliath" that we've got to slay and we've got one shot at it. We've got to aim for the heart and hit it."
I concluded with a response to the president's earlier question.
"So, we're not promoting Smucker's tagline, we're dismantling it."
With that I noticed a slight hint of a smile on the president face. I then took him through the simple spot which opened with the Smucker's tagline filling the screen as an announcer spoke:
Anncr: "For 30 years Smucker's has been telling us they have to be good. But it fact, Smucker's Preserves is mostly corn syrup . . . refined sugar. . . and only some fruit."
As the announcer revealed each ingredient a pair of hands would quickly and repeatedly appear from the bottom of the screen and literally patch over the words "it has to be good" with each less flattering line; "it's probably be good," then "it might be good," and finally; "is it really so good?" The spot then cut to a hero shot of the Sorrell Ridge jar with the explanation that Sorrell Ridge was 100% fruit. The final tagline played directly off of Smucker's as the VO voiced the final words: "Sorrell Ridge. With 100% fruit, it has to be better".
After getting over the initial shock of beginning the spot with his competitor's tagline the Sorrell Ridge president was now getting excited about it. However, there were legal concerns. Could we do it? A few minor copy changes and a couple of nail-biting delays later the lawyers finally gave us the green light. Still, they warned, there was no guarantee that Smucker's wouldn't sue. Thanks to the Sorrell Ridge president's courage, and a truthful spot, we ran it and held our collective breath.
It didn't take long to find out that it wasn't just us who were excited by the campaign. In the first month sales jumped a 90%. Our ecstatic client immediately doubled the media spending, scraping together every dollar he could muster. With funds exhausted after just two months, Sorrell Ridge still ended up with a 50% increase, nationally, for the year while sales for the entire jams and jellies category increased only 3.5% during the same period. The Harvard Business Review wrote it up it as a case study and Forbes wrote it up as a feature article. My partner and I got covered in half a dozen trade magazines and appeared live on CNBC talking about our David vs. Goliath success. And, despite all the legal fears Smucker's never sued. Tiny Sorrell Ridge was on the map, and so was our new agency.
I can't share this story without a bizarre footnote. The campaign was conceived while I was freelancing out of a subleased office space in another ad agency. That agency's main account was Smucker's. And, the owner -- a very nice, older woman who was trying to get me on staff -- was the person who actually wrote the famous Smucker's tagline.
View spot: Sorrell Ridge TV
Another later campaign from our agency actually had people picketing in the streets. It was a campaign for an off-price retailer called Daffy's. Daffy's big claim was that their everyday prices were up to 80% off retail. Our simple message was that retail is a rip-off and anyone who pays it is nuts. The ad that caused all the commotion simply stated, "If you're willing to pay over a hundred dollars for a dress shirt, may we suggest a jacket to go with it." The visual was a straight jacket.
Great ad, right? Well, the Alliance for the Mentally Ill didn't think so. "Straight jackets and mental illness are nothing to joke about," they scolded, and told us to pull the ads. Now, I'd be the last one to make fun of mental illness, or any illness for that matter. But it was hard to take these people seriously. After all, these were the same people who had a problem with the Almond Joy / Mounds campaign that sang, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't." When we didn't immediately pull the ad, things heated up. The Alliance was not about to be rebuffed. They brought the ad to the attention of the American Association of Advertising Agencies as well as the media companies that were displaying the ad. Daffy's also began receiving anonymous, threatening calls. The story even became a featured article in The New York Times.
Of course, all the controversy wasn't hurting Daffy's business. Most people had no problem with the ad -- in fact they loved it. And when we were informed that the ad had won several major advertising awards, including an Obie for the best in outdoor advertising, my partners and I were thrilled. When the black-tie award event arrived my partners and I grabbed a cab and headed to the Sheraton where the show was being held. Due to heavy traffic we hopped out few blocks short of the hotel. Walking toward it we could see an unusually large group gathered near the main entrance. It appeared as if there was some kind of demonstration -- not uncommon in a city like New York. But due to the recent controversy, I couldn't resist wise-cracking:
"Hey, maybe it's a demonstration against us," heh, heh.
We laughed. We stopped laughing when we got close enough to see our names crudely hand-markered on posters held up by the angry demonstrators. The posters implored everyone to boycott our terrible agency while other signs and flyers read, "Straight jackets are NOT funny.". With a nervous smile I grabbed a flyer thrust at me and quickly made my way past the picketers. Fortunately, we weren't recognized. That is the first -- and hopefully last -- time I intend to be the focus of any mob protest.
Other than being accused by our cross-town rivals of orchestrating the attention-getting protest ourselves, the demonstration had no residual effect. Our client eventually did stop the ad, but not before they got their mileage out of it -- a bit more than expected.
©2002 John Follis. All rights reserved.