Bang ideas can be daring too

The history of advertising is filled with cases of derring-do, but one campaign saved a dying brand by making a daring point about, well, the experience associated with maintaining an attractive “do.” Hairdo, that is.
Feature Brand Experience Herbal Essences Panel

Linda Kaplan Thaler, who forged a Hall of Fame advertising career with campaigns like the Aflac duck, spoke of several advertising success stories during the virtual June 2 IB Presents, sponsored by Edgewood College and EZ Office Products. While the Aflac duck is an example of thinking outside the box to create brand awareness where there was practically none, the Kaplan Thaler Group’s groundbreaking “Yes, Yes, Yes” commercials for Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo saved a longstanding brand that was in danger of being pulled from the shelves.

In our story about the Aflac duck campaign, Kaplan Thaler notes that so-called bang ideas have a key feature: they take over the cultural universe seemingly overnight. Among the ideas that took over the cultural universe, she cites the Seinfeld phrase “Yada, yada, yada,” which created an English phrase that had never been used before; 30 years later, it’s on coffee cups, T-shirts, and masks designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She also mentioned the viral Ice Bucket Challenge that raised more than $100 million for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research, and more recently, the sudden popularity of gender-reveal parties.

In branding, bang ideas are very illogical, Kaplan Thaler notes. “They don’t seem to be about what they are really about, right? When Perrier came out with the first bottle of water, why would somebody pay $3 for water when you can get it from a nice stream or from your faucet?

“Why would somebody go to Starbucks and pay $3.50 for their smallest cup of coffee, when you have to clean up after yourself and they won’t give you any more refills and when you can go down to a diner and get it for 75 cents?”

The answer, of course, is because the products did more than sell something, they sold consumers on a way of life. Perrier, which is actually carbonated mineral water, “takes on a role and the role it takes on is that when you have Perrier, you’re telling people it’s a badge of health,” Kaplan Thaler states. “Howard Schultz, who runs Starbucks, created Starbucks, says it’s never been about the coffee. It’s about getting your morning custom-made because the rest of the day, you’re going to have to listen to your boss or some irate customer.

“And when you do that, and you create brands that can really seep into the very fabric of your life.”

Clarifying shampoo
Those brands really break the bank, especially when the related advertising campaigns are daring. Several years ago, one of the Kaplan Thaler Group’s first accounts was Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo. As Kaplan Thaler explains, it was a tired, old brand that had come out in the 1970s, and it was dying on the vine. The client was desperate — which Kaplan Thaler loves because it gives her cart blanche — and out of ideas.

Kaplan Thaler suggested they not focus on the end benefit of shiny hair, which was already owned by the Pantene brand, but instead concentrate on the actual experience of washing your hair. “We found that women kind of like going into the shower and washing their hair. It was cleansing. Nobody could bother them. It was pleasant,” she explains.

Kaplan Thaler Group started thinking of celebrities that could be that woman in the shower, and the first person that came to mind was actress Meg Ryan. She had just been in the movie When Harry Met Sally, and one of Kaplan Thaler’s art directors, in the creative act of kidding around, mentioned the much talked-about restaurant scene that caused an onlooker to remark, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Kaplan Thaler immediately thought of marrying the “yes, yes, yes” from that scene with the pleasurable experience of washing one’s hair in the shower, and openly wondered, “Instead of the woman having a nice time in the shower, what if she has an extraordinarily nice time in the shower?”

This is certainly where the daring came in because her team’s first reaction was shock and something less than awe. “You’re not going to do that,” they said. “If you do, we’re not going to go in with you.”

Kaplan Thaler was happy to pitch the idea by herself, but had she known she would be selling it to an all-male board of directors, she might have thought twice. However, their state of desperation was such that they were open to any idea, especially when the pitch woman didn’t mince words.

“I walked up to them, and I said gentlemen, only an ‘organic’ experience can save this brand,” Kaplan Thaler recounts. “That wasn’t the word I actually used.”

Within six months, Clairol Herbal Essences was the second leading hair care product in the country, and Clairol was acquired by Proctor and Gamble, which didn’t want that kind of brand competition anymore.

“I’m proud to say that women are having ‘organic’ experiences in 75 countries around the world — except in China,” Kaplan Thaler jokes. In China, “we’ve had to sort of mellow it down for that country.”

Kidding not aside
One lesson of the Herbal Essences campaign is the value of humor in the creative process. The art director who mentioned the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally might have been kidding around, but it sparked an idea that helped the agency grow to $1 billion in billings. “We get so many ideas when you kid around, and I always urge people when you’re ideating, start with some jokes, getting people loose,” she says. “People make better connections when they are laughing. They are more open to ideas.”

This approach helped Kaplan Thaler Group become one of the fastest-growing advertising agencies in the United States. “I’d like to think that it wasn’t in spite of, but because of the attitude and the way we created our atmosphere,” she says, “and that it has spawned people to create in this hotbed where they felt very safe to throw out ideas.”

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