Bill Bernbach

Last week most of the advertising industry trade magazines had articles about Bernbach on the centennial of his birthday. I thought I would contribute by relating the story of him, Edgar M. Bronfman and Chivas Regal.

Before I do, however, for those of you who are unfamiliar with him, here is some background on the man who revolutionized creativity in advertising – no, make that brand and product selling.

Bill Bernbach’s style of advertising changed brand communication. He was the anti “Mad Men” focusing on compelling messages that broke through the clutter and resonated with consumers. “The difference between the forgettable and the endurable is artistry,” was how he put it. So think about such ads as Avis “We Try Harder” or Volkswagen “Think Small” or “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye bread.”

His effort on behalf of Chivas Regal is an interesting story as described by Edgar M. Bronfman in his book Good Spirits, and by Paul Pacult in A Double Scotch – How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons.

In the 1960’s after the acquisition of Chivas, the brand began to languish in the face of competition from such lighter scotches as Cutty Sark and J&B Rare. Edgar managed to convince his father that changes needed to be made to stem the sales declines. These included product reformulation, new packaging and a new ad campaign. Enter Bill Bernbach.

As the story goes, when Bernbach showed the new ads to Edgar there was one ad at the bottom of the pile that he kept hiding. When pushed by Bronfman to reveal it, Bernbach pointed out that it was intended as an introductory ad for the new package and that he was concerned that Edgar wouldn’t dare run it.

The headline read “What Idiot Changed the Chivas Regal Package?” To his credit, Bronfman saw the benefits of the brashness and self-mocking tone and, to make a long story short, the ad ran.

The team at Doyle, Dane and Bernbach went on to change the brand’s fortune by understanding consumers and reaching them through challenges and taunts that were fun and resonated well. My favorite – “If you can’t taste the difference in Chivas Regal, save the extra two dollars.” And, the classic, “The Chivas Regal of Scotches.”

In addition to the central print campaign, the agency created a cartoon campaign, which picked up on the theme. A particularly memorable one showed a ship leaving the dock with a case of Chivas left behind. The caption read, “They’ll be back. They forgot the Chivas.”

Did the creativity translate into brand sell? According to the Pacult book, when DDB took over in 1962, the brand was selling around 135,000 cases. By 1979, sales had risen to 1.1 million.

All I can close with is a rewording of another great Bernbach ad – “Mama Mia, that’s effective advertising.”

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Chivas Gin?

No, there’s no such thing. But the idea almost got me fired.

I read in Drink Spirits that they selected a Scottish gin among the best new spirits introduced at Tales of the Cocktail. Caorunn Small Batch Scottish Gin joins Hendricks as Scottish made. The brand is made from the traditional botanical mix plus distinctly Scottish botanicals.

So here’s the Chivas gin story.

When I ran new products at Seagram, as I’m sure you’ve noticed from the tequila postings, filling gaps in the portfolio was a top item on the agenda. Oh sure, we had the top seller in domestic gin but with the exception of Boodles, we did not have an imported brand to compete with Beefeater’s, Tanqueray, Bombay and others.

Our research revealed that a strong overlap in preferences existed among scotch and gin drinkers. A scotch drinker was most likely to drink gin as a second choice and vice versa.

Based on this insight and lots of concept development work, my friend Sam Ellias recommended a Chivas Gin. Before I could say a word, he quickly added that it would not be Chivas Regal Gin, but rather, a gin from Chivas Brothers. The brand would use the Chivas heritage of distilling expertise and skill and apply it to a “white goods” product. Further, his research showed that attitudes toward Chivas Regal Scotch itself improved as a result of the more contemporary gin brand idea. Trust me, at that time, Chivas Regal could use all the help it could get.

I was convinced.

At the next new products review meeting we put the idea on the table for discussion and approval to proceed to the next development stage. There was strong support but something wasn’t right. Those in the room with doctorate degrees in “Owner Anger Detection” (OAD) became uneasy. I couldn’t understand it but knew enough to drop the subject based on instinct.

But not Sam Ellias.

A number of years later when I was running marketing and he was in charge of new products, he brought up the subject of a gin by Chivas Brothers once again. Not only was the research even more compelling but he also found a name that made the product clearly by Chivas. All he wanted was a real world test market with an action standard that if this gin product failed to improve Chivas’ sales, the idea would be dropped. Reasonable.

While I still didn’t have a PHD in OAD, I had a Master’s and strong survival instincts. I approached the subject gingerly and discussed it with a family confidante/consultant to gauge the reaction. Instead of debating the merits or concerns, he must have gone to the head owner complaining about the idea.

The next thing I know, I get a poison pen email from the owner, the content of which I will never forget:

If I ever hear the words Chivas and gin used again in the same sentence, heads will roll, starting with yours.

This missive came from the same office that had pushed such brilliant new product ideas as Von Konig Silberwasser (I think it was supposed to be a vodka), Bourbon Street Bourbon (billed as a New Orleans style bourbon, whatever that is), and my personal favorite, Chivas Danu, whose relationship to scotch continues to elude me.

Despite the amused reaction from my management, who assured me not to be concerned, the dispatch rankled me and I avoided new products and Sam for some time afterward.

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More Tequila Tales

The caller was annoyed and had a threatening tone in his voice. He got right to the point and informed me that he was a business manager for Jimmy Buffett. He quickly added that we had infringed on trademark and other intellectual property rights – I can’t recall the full extent of our alleged/supposed violations but I was intrigued.

When I politely asked, “What the hell are you talking about?” he explained that Parrot Bay Rum by Captain Morgan, which had recently been introduced, infringed on their established use of the term Parrott Head, the commonly used nickname for fans of Jimmy Buffett. (I remember thinking, “Is he nuts?” How do you trademark the term parrot?)

I knew who Buffett was and associated him with the song Margaritaville, but I was far from a fan, much less an aficionado. I knew he had a strong and loyal following but that was about it.

Instinct told me this gentleman had more on his mind than a lawsuit so I pushed back.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I countered. “Two floors below there are offices chocked full of lawyers who spend their time dealing with real and frivolous issues, so I suggest you take your best shot and do what you need to do.” There was silence but I could hear him blink. “Now, do you want to tell me why you’re really calling?”

He went on to explain that they’d like to have private label tequila for their restaurants and, since we didn’t have a viable brand (that hurt), would we be interested in producing one for them.

“Listen… private label tequila is not a good idea … you’ll make a nickel and we’ll make a dime. It won’t be anything more than a well brand… Tell you what … let’s talk about licensing Jimmy Buffett’s name for a tequila.”

The glee in his voice told me that I had just been played but, no matter, we needed a tequila brand and this might just be the ticket.

He informed me that they would prefer to use the name Margaritaville but the look and feel would be totally Buffett.

It didn’t take long to consider, particularly since a friend and wholesaler, one of the best and smartest in the business, recommended him to us. The deal was done, so far as I was concerned. Getting approval from management (not the owners this time) was another matter. It took a while.

Buffett’s man lived up to his end of the deal – wouldn’t you if you got a hefty royalty off the top? As for me, I became whatever the word is that goes beyond an admirer of Buffett, his music (made my kids so crazy by playing it constantly that they refused to ride in the car with me), his business and, of course, going to his concerts.

The biggest issue in the development was to capture the essence of the Jimmy Buffett brand. The next thing I know, the man himself appears at the office and lets us know that he is there to help with the back label copy. In twenty minutes, he produced the most incredible story that was totally Buffett. He is an amazing guy, top of the game performer, highly recognized and accomplished author and a decent, down to earth person.

In the few years that Seagram had it before the lights went out, the brand went from 5,000 to 50,000 cases. Afterward, it continued to grow but was bounced from company to company without, in my opinion, any significant focus or direction.

There is a happy ending however. Margaritaville is now part of the Sazarac Company and in good hands. In addition to the original tequila brands, they have rum and prepared cocktails including a skinny margarita mix.

Reminds me of his song, Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitudenothing remains quite the same.

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