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Brands for Sale
Every now and then, a promotional product is so special that it compels consumers to throw open their wallets and purchase it. These clever products accomplished just that – and more.

The Travelocity gnome gets around. The little bearded guy in the blue shirt, high belt and pointy red hat has recently been spotted everywhere from the American Idol auditions in San Antonio to Epcot Center in Orlando – not to mention a neighbor’s yard near you.   

In 2004, the popular online travel site Travelocity was looking for a way to differentiate itself from competitors like Expedia and Orbitz. Ad agency McKinney + Silver presented the roaming gnome as a centerpiece for its advertising. While selling gnome statues was mentioned in the initial strategy sessions, it was more of a “dream goal,” says Joel Frey, a rep for Travelocity.

This dream was achieved, as more than 35,000 gnomes have been released into the wild at price points of $19.99 for an eight-inch gnome and $64.95 for the larger 18-inch version. Other gnome-related merchandise, like hats, thermal mugs and dress-up magnets are still hot sellers at “The Gnome Home” at Travelocity.com.

Precious few brands have created icons that consumers were so taken by that they threw open their wallets and purchased them. Hess trucks, Staples Easy Buttons, the California raisins and a handful of others transcended just being a promotional product and grew to become part of the culture at large.

“I’m sure that these companies are thrilled that people are buying their brand icons,” says Peter Allen, brand strategy director, Turner Duckworth, a strategic marketing firm. “In some respects, it means that they’ve made the leap into cultural icon territory, because people are endorsing them not merely as products and brands, but they’re validating and accepting them into their lives as friends.”

Creating such a marketable icon should arguably be every brand’s “dream goal,” as it generates an entire new revenue stream. In 2006, licensed items involving a corporate brand accounted for $1.1 billion in royalties, per the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, in New York. Of all licensed items 18.25% of products were corporate related.

Having consumers adopt these icons also builds up an immense amount of brand awareness. Perhaps, the greatest success story of late is that of the Staples Easy Button. Again born out of an ad campaign, created by McCann Erickson, the button symbolizes the magic item we all wish we had when faced with a difficult situation.

It works because “it is wildly empathetic,” says Todd Peters, Staples vice president of brand management. “It’s highly relatable. Whether you are a parent of a second-grader or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company – very few ideas have that flexibility. Everyone can find a relevance to a situation where the Easy Button fits in.”

At $4.99 a pop, Staples has made a pretty penny, having sold 2.4 million buttons between fall 2005 and this spring.

Martyn Tipping, president, TippingSprung, a branding consultancy, says the Easy Button rises above the rest “because it reinforces the consumer’s association with Staples. Having a gnome or Taco Bell’s talking Chihuahua is a problem. These characters end up taking on a life of their own, and it doesn’t feed back into the brand. With the Staples Easy Button, as annoying as they are to see on people’s desks, it reinforces the brand.”

 This is especially helpful for a commodities business like Staples. “We were hoping for a campaign like MasterCard’s ‘Priceless,’” says Peters, “but we didn’t expect this widespread of adoption into the mainstream.”

Indeed, everyone from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Commissioner John Doll to officers in Iraq has called upon the button’s powers. More than a thousand YouTube videos feature it, and a designer named Al Cohen has floated an instructional PDF file across the Web with advice as to how to hack into it. He calls it “the evil button.”

Early Adopters
Such success is not unprecedented. One need only take a look back at the ’80s. Amid the androgynous rock stars and ugly, neon fashions were the wholesome California raisins grooving away to Marvin Gaye. The figurines reached such a fever pitch that Claymation versions of Michael Jackson and Ray Charles were incorporated into the California Raisin Marketing Board’s campaign, notes its Senior Vice President of Marketing Larry Blagg, “They created an amazing personality. For older Americans, they enjoyed hearing the ‘Heard it through the grapevine’ song, and it was the first Claymation ever done on TV. It was something totally unique for the marketing of food products.”

In 1987, more than 300,000 people sent in suggested names for the various raisins that starred in the ads. The raisins’ popularity lives on today, as they can be spotted on at least 50 ’80s-focused Web sites, per Blagg’s count. They appear at trade shows, school events and were the subject of a recent ad campaign that encouraged working women to take better care of themselves. And there are reports that they will make an appearance in the film Food Fight that debuts Nov. 16 from Lionsgate. While the raisins have given the product a personality unlike any healthy product before it, Blagg admits that it became less about the food and more about the characters. “In the first commercial, they were pushing aside popcorn and all of these less nutritional snacks. We were trying to emphasize that this was a natural product. Over time, they took on a life of their own, and the nutritional message was what got pushed aside.”

Still, the public gobbled up the little purple figurines by the handful, albeit for a brief moment in time.

Staying Power?
Charles M. Riotto, president of the Licensing Industry Merchandising Association, thinks there is little staying power for items like the raisins, Intel Pentium 2’s spaceman and creepy masks and games featuring the Burger King. “Those are short-term opportunities to get people talking about a brand. As far as actually building brand equity, I’m not sure if they have long-term impact. They’re kind of gimmicky things to get people talking and create awareness. It’s not really brand-building.”

Others disagree. When Derek Koenig took over as the senior vice president of marketing for cable television’s The Learning Channel, he considered many options for targeting 20- to 40-year-olds. “The channel had kind of lost its way, its purpose, and ratings were suffering. We decided to treat it as less of a channel and more of a brand.”

Working with the Martin Agency in Richmond, VA, it came up with a voice for the network that included, among other things, “Life Lessons” figurines. For example, the Life Lesson figurine #22 features a deranged woman surrounded by cats, with the inscription, Dating is awkward, but so is becoming the crazy cat lady.

Then there’s Life Lesson #66: If he wants you to be his mom, you don’t want to be his girlfriend. And Life Lesson #72: Merlot and e-mail do not mix.

To date, TLC has sold 25,000-plus figurines at $15 apiece. “We haven’t really promoted them; people have found them largely on their own,” says Koenig. “We’re thrilled people would buy them and put them in their houses and on their desks. I can’t think of a better branding element for reminding people to tune in every night. They plug directly into our programming.”

Humor is the key component linking all of these products, says Turner Duckworth’s Allen. “Most of these brands share an authenticity and a sense of humor. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and they don’t insult our intelligence by pretending to be something they’re not.”

Koenig says the figurines are a riff on the classic Hummel figurines of old. “Hummel was for the generation in front of us,” he says. “Our point of view is more self-effacing. That’s the way life lessons work. It may not be fun when you experience them, but when you share them after the fact, everyone nods and says, ‘I’ve been there.’ You’re joining the club of shared wisdom.”

Free Advertising
No matter how direct of a hit these premiums score, Allen warns, “I’d be cautious about reading too much into this phenomenon. Today’s brand icon can quickly become tomorrow’s bargain-bin collectible.”

Yet, many brands continue to get it right year after year. The Hess trucks have become a holiday tradition and the M&M’s characters have proved so popular that they have their own retail stores. M&M’s World Stores can be found at Las Vegas, Orlando and most recently New York’s Times Square. Parent company Masterfoods positions the stores as themed retail destinations “designed to be enjoyed by families,” says its Director of Public Relations Renee Kopkowski – although it’s worth noting, the product’s target audience is both men and women between the ages of 18 and 49
While she would not disclose the stores’ revenue draw, she did say that the new Times Square location “has both met and surpassed our expectations. It’s doing very well.”

The top-selling items are candy dispensers, apparel and, of course, the candy itself. These three core categories represent more than 50% of the retail store business. Of course, new items are always on the way. Most recently, it debuted a Statue of Liberty dispenser for Memorial Day.

In Staples’ case, the chain already had the stores in place, but it wasn’t until an outpouring of e-mails, letters and phone calls that it made the Easy Button product available. “Its popularity and extendibility has surprised us,” says Peters.

He says there are additional future plans for the promotional item, but adds that the company is very cautious about protecting its equity because ideas like this “are few and far between. They are hard to come up with. Something like the Easy Button, you don’t have to explain it. There might be a percentage of the population that says, ‘This is dumb,’ but those people are few and far between. For most, it gives them a smile and makes them feel good. They apply it to their own situations. When it becomes their asset, that’s really the Holy Grail.”

Travelocity’s Frey agrees. The gnome “is basically free advertising for us. That’s the beauty of it. When we launched in 2004, we thought it was just kitschy enough that people could identify with the back story of ‘gnomenapping.’” This would be stealing your neighbor’s gnome and taking him on an adventure and then showing them pictures after the fact. The theme was popularized in the Oscar-nominated Amélie.

“We encourage our employees to take them on trips with them,” he says. “It’s gotten to the point that security guys at the airport say, ‘There’s another one of those gnomes.’”

Better yet, Travelocity now owns practically all of the brand equity tied to all gnomes. So much so that Al Roker upon seeing a kid waving a gnome among the Today Show crowd standing behind the barricade, joked, “Is he related to the Travelocity gnome?” says Frey. “Gnomes and Travelocity are connected together.”

By Kenneth Hein
COPYRIGHT © 2008 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.

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