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U.S. Nestle borrows U.K. TV "romance."

U.S. Nestle borrows U.K. TV "Romance"

Scene: Boy meets Girl in the corridor of an elegant apartment block. She asks to borrow some coffee, and he lends her a jar of freeze-dried. Their relationship goes from strength to strength, constantly fueled by--among other things--a mutual passion for quality coffee. Any advertising agency which presented that outline to an important client would be lucky to escape with a full set of teeth, says Richard Clark. And yet ...

Well, no, of course it was never quite as thin and charmless as that, but on the other hand it didn't immediately set the joybells ringing either. Even so, it provided the basis for one of the most successful campaigns ever seen on British television; so successful, in fact, that the same theme, with the same stars, has now been adopted by one of the U.S. coffee industry's Big Three. Nestle, no less.

However, to begin at the beginning. In the fall of 1987, Nestle U.K. were less than wholly satisfied with the performance of their premium freeze-dry brand, Gold Blend. In part, perhaps, this was because the British market was in a somewhat volatile state, with competing brands pressing hard for market share and traditional R&G coffees making small but significant inroads in what, for the last 40 years or so, had been almost wholly a playground for instants. Moreover, shelf space was being invaded by slightly similar competing brands being sold in containers designed to look as close as possible to the Nestle original.

Clearly the situation demanded a rethink, and the rethink in turn produced a decision to relaunch. At this point, too, the company's technologists had developed new processing technologies which had moved the quality of the product several important notches up the scale, and this provided the final impetus to set the project on the road.

The first outcome was a new, stacker-friendly square jar with a metalized label that would be hard to copy to match the upgraded contents. So far, so good, but the next problem was how to imprint the image of what was almost a new product on the collective consciousness of the shopping public in a market so tooth-and-claw competitive that Tamurlane the Terrible would rate as a wimp.

For the TV sector of the battle, Nestle turned to the McCann-Erickson agency and creative director Gerry Green and in due course was presented with a storyboard featuring an attractive young couple, both of them obvious achievers, who met from time to time in various social circumstances and swapped smoothly sophisticated, slightly edgy but ultimately good-humored banter with each exchange turning somehow seamlessly to the topic of coffee.

It was a pleasant enough concept but not, on the face of it, exactly a world beater, and it's fair to say that when the first 40-second episode flickered across Britain's television screens the initial response was not precisely overwhelming. But the whole turned out to be a great deal more than the sum of its admittedly very polished parts. Writing, casting, costumes and sets were all precisely right, the acting immaculate and the overall production values outstanding.

Well, countless other commercials have combined all these attractive ingredients over the years, and the response from the viewing public has been a deflating "Ho-hum." This time, though, the components were all exactly right, and by the time the series reached the seventh episode it had not only attained cult status but, best of all, it was selling lots and lots of Gold Blend.

In the first 18 months of the campaign, sales increased by a formidable 20% from a base which was already pretty high. Gold Blend, in its original form, was a mature product, introduced in the U.K. in 1965, when it scored an instant success.

It was launched in the prosperous southern half of England--still a traditional launch-pad for new products--and demand was enormous. The word got around, and wholesalers in the North of England actually began to bootleg Gold Blend from southern supermarkets at the insistence of their customers. And ever since then, Gold Blend has been the Number 1 freeze-dried coffee in Britain.

Nevertheless, Nestle felt that they could not ignore the steady encroachment of the R&G coffees in the mid 80's, when the 98% market share which solubles had established was whittled away to a mere 90%. Remembering that the market is worth in the region of $1 billion-plus helps to explain why such apparently small percentages mean so much. Moreover, the advance of the R&Gs coincided with a bruising price battle that left much less to spend on advertising and promotion in general, so that the market lost its momentum.

With some 230 different instant coffees on sale in the U.K., varying in price from $1.15 per 100g to $4.90 at the top of the range, the public was certainly not starved for choice. Nestle took the bold decision to opt out of the price-shaving contest and go instead for quality, using Gold Blend as its flag-carrier, supported by its all-Arabica Alta Rica blend and Cap Colombie, manufactured by Nestle France; carrying the Gold Blend banner was the burgeoning love story.

But plenty of TV commercials which won the plaudits of the ad industry for their wit, artistic imagery and stylish photography have failed lamentably in persuading Joe and Jill Public to buy the product. Did the Gold Blend ad meet this critical criterion? Well, when the campaign began, Gold Blend had a 6.5% share of the total British coffee market; seven episodes later, it has a 10% share--equivalent to total R&G sales in the U.K.

So what was the secret? Sharon Maughan, who plays the female lead, is slim and elegantly beautiful, with doe eyes and a gently mocking smile; Tony Head is unconventionally handsome, self-assured but unagressive. The script is concise and interrelative without laboring the message. The whole thing is fun to watch. Newspapers and magazines have been quick to latch onto it, and it is widely and affectionately parodied in comedy programs. Discreetly prodded by Nestle, the media have developed a long-running teaser: will they, won't they, become lovers?

Sharon Maughan, who stayed away from the stage when her two children were very young, is now much in demand: she featured in a major episode of Inspector Morse, seen on U.S. channels. Tony Head is currently playing Frank N. Furter in a sellout revival of The Rocky Horrow Show in London. For the U.S. version, filmed at the same studios outside London at a cost of nearly $200,000 for each episode, Maughan has a faintly mid-Atlantic accent, and Head sounds vaguely East Coast. The first U.S. showing was last November, and it remains to be seen if the American public will be as fascinated by the developing romance, with the hidden question: Do they, or do they not, get to kiss?

When everybody in the U.S. knew who had shot J.R., millions of British viewers had months to wait before they saw the crucial episode of Dallas. Now it seems only fair that American audiences should also wait for the answer.

PHOTO : At left, Nescafe's aroma is unleashed by actress, Sharon Maughan. At right, actor Tony Head, shares her appreciation.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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