How a 26-year-old advertising intern saved Shreddies



How a 26-year-old advertising intern saved Shreddies




How a 26-year-old advertising intern saved Shreddies


When Hunter Somerville created the world’s first “diamond Shreddie” in September 2006 by pivoting a piece of the waffled whole wheat cereal onto a 45 degree angle, he didn’t have a clue it would inspire a landmark ad campaign destined to spark debate at checkout counters and win fawning accolades within the very industry it parodies—all while selling a truckload of cereal and revitalizing a sleepy brand. At the time, though, the virtuosity of his cereal play didn’t summon a “Eureka! ” moment. “I thought it was the stupidest, worst idea ever,” he says. The 26-year-old intern at the Toronto ad agency Ogilvy & Mather was grappling with the sort of joe job interns are saddled with—in this case thinking up a fun concept for the back of the Shreddies box. Meanwhile, the agency’s senior creative brains were working on client Post Cereals’ request for a big idea that would get customers thinking about the 67-year-old cereal again. Shreddies, sold only in Canada, the U.K. and New Zealand, comprises a big part

of Post’s cereal portfolio, says Jennifer Hutchinson, Post’s director of marketing. Yet the brand had not had a major marketing push since the cartoon Shreddies, “Freddie” and ‘Eddie,” served as mascots some 15 years ago, in the days when the cereal was known by the insipid jingle “Good, good, whole wheat Shreddies.” “It’s one of the well-loved, but boring brands,” says Nancy Vonk, Ogilvy’s chief creative officer, one of the masterminds behind Dove’s heralded “campaign for real beauty.”

Somerville, a native of London, Ont., had been working

at Ogilvy for three months; it was his second ad agency job after a failed stint on the improv circuit. “I got into advertising because I thought I could write funnier than what was out there,” he explains. That was the extent of his ambition for the back of the box, he says: “I figured if I can’t write the big idea, I might as well make them laugh.” When Somerville’s “old” square Shreddie/“new” diamond-shaped Shreddie idea was unveiled to the senior Ogilvy team, he wasn’t even present. People laughed out loud, Vonk recalls. The concept was seized upon as the basis of a larger campaign that would encompass billboard, tele-

vision, print and the Internet, as well as a new “Diamond Shreddies” box.

Thus was born the world’s first advertising campaign to actually create the product being sold. By tilting an old product on its side, literally, it succeeded in tilting it afresh in consumers’ imaginations as well. And in the process, it also skewered the hollow emperor’s-new-clothes essence of “new and improved” product boasts and misplaced attempts to update classic brands. In such a landscape, the most radical change is, wait for it: no change at all. Such a meta-ironic sens-

ibility, of course, has become a cultural staple, familiar to viewers of Borat or The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. There should be little surprise Somerville has a picture of Colbert posted on the wall of his office. “He’s a genius,” he says. “It’s his tone, which is like the tone of this campaign. Whenever I get stuck on something I think, ‘How would Stephen Colbert do this?’ ”

Just as The Colbert Report is a faux news show mimicking the conventions of an actual news show, the creative path of the “new” Diamond Shreddies campaign traced the footsteps of an actual “new” cereal launch. Comedian Kerry Griffin conducted focus

groups, interviewing 15 people before video cameras. The Ogilvy team expected humour to spring from people taking offence at being treated like fools and lashing back at Griffin. That didn’t happen. Rather, the spots serve as case studies in bovine consumer acceptance. Participants politely answered absurd questions such as “Does the diamond Shreddie taste better than the square one?” (“It had more punch,” avowed one man, nodding), and “Rank Diamond Shreddies as an animal, from an amoeba up to an elephant” (“A kangaroo,” said one woman). One man who said he thought the two shapes looked the same was cowed when Griffin made the analogy with the numbers six and nine. “When you turn a six over it’s a nine,” Griffin told him patiently. “But a six is very different from a nine.” The proceedings also highlighted the dubious efficacy of focus groups, one of the

altars the advertising industry worships at. Vonk concedes they possess a fatal flaw: “I don’t think people always say what they really think,” she says. When told they’d been pranked, all but one participant agreed to allow the footage to be aired.

Such faux media vérité is a modern conceit, tailored to consumers both savvy and cynical about marketing machinations, says Torontobased advertising consultant John Burghardt. “It wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago,” he says. “But in this incredibly media-sawy world everybody gets the joke. You don’t have to spell everything out.”

The premise also subtly tweaks the “square,” straight-arrow image of Post’s parent, Kraft Foods, purveyor of Cheez Whiz. “People say T can’t believe Kraft bought that,’ but it was an easy sell,” says Vonk. “We loved it,” says Hutchinson.

It was a risk in an industry where clients are risk-adverse, notes Frank Palmer, chief

executive of advertising agency DDB Canada. “It’s rare to have a brave client ready to do something new—in this case relaunching an old cereal and turning it on its side. It’s brilliant,” he says. “The hard thing when managing a brand that’s been around forever is not blending into the wallpaper,” observes John Bradley, who runs the online marketing consultancy Yknot Strategic Solutions Inc., after working as a creative director with Cadbury for decades. Bradley admires the stealthiness of the Diamond Shreddie approach. “What I love is that it brings you back to the core product. It didn’t take the easy route of launching a line extension. It has all of the benefits of noise and attention and pseudo “new” news but it’s old Shreddies and I’d forgotten how much I liked them. It definitely stands out.” The fact that it is so singular is an indictment of the current state of market-


ing in which product is overwhelmed by highconcept pyrotechnics, he says: “It’s really sad that a campaign stands out because it’s focusing on the brand it’s supposed to be advertising.”

Still, there was nervousness within Kraft’s upper ranks that consumers might not get the joke. A trial campaign that spanned print, television, billboards and the Internet was floated in Alberta in the summer of 2007. A TV spot explained that a dire accident at the Shreddies factory had led to the extinction of the square Shreddie. A website offered prizes, a vote-in for “square” or “diamond,” and recipes with the caveat: “If Diamond Shreddies cereal is not available, you can substitute with square Shreddies cereal.” Not everyone got the joke. One perplexed man wrote the Edmonton Journal: “I am not usually the suspicious type, but don’t the new Diamond Shreddies look like the original Shreddies just flipped on their

side?” But enough did get it to lead to sales increases that far exceeded expectations.

The national rollout in January 2008 featured the new Diamond Shreddies box boasting a “win one of 10 diamonds” contest. The “Is it a joke? Is it not a joke?” debate quickly went viral. Focus group videos were posted on YouTube, alongside a slew of rants directed at the cereal. In “Diamond Shreddies!? wtf ” a teenage girl shouts: “They could have at least made it a triangle.” “The way we see it is, people not getting it is good,” says Vonk, who shows off emails from people gushing about the campaign’s brilliance. Engagement is such that more than 10,000 people have voted online for their favourite shape (the diamond is currently ahead by a thin margin). “It’s rare to see that kind of national chord struck,” Vonk says.

The ad industry too has been captivated.

The popular site ranked the Diamond Shreddies campaign “best in the world” for a few weeks. Its ingenuity is thrashed out on advertising blogs. “This is an example as to how gullible the public really is” reads one post on “It’s the same cereal that I remember as a child, boring and tasteless... if you’re excited for Diamond Shreddies, it’s evident that you are a slave to marketing and advertising.” Another poster disagrees: “Possibly my favourite campaign of all time-perfectly simple and almost endlessly effective. Comments along the lines of: ‘This is the exact same cereal, just turned 45 degrees’ or ‘They haven’t changed anything, they just want to sell more Shreddies’ are almost as entertaining as the campaign itself.”

The industry is doubly impressed because it knows how difficult selling cereal can be. “People love their cereal,” says Mary Maddever, executive editor of Strategy, a trade

magazine for the marketing industry. “And people love their cereal the way it is. Starting a new one is problematic for brands in terms of shelf space and supporting eight million varieties. So from a product perspective, the notion of refreshing a brand, and making it new and getting some attention without changing it is really a brilliant coup. That’s why people in the marketing community loved it. People on the agency side loved it because it was a simple, pure idea. It was just ‘wow.’ ”

Maddever praised the way the campaign has engaged the marketplace. “It’s brilliant from the point of view of getting people involved in a way that they’re intrigued—not annoyed but intrigued. So much advertising that doesn’t have a good idea has to make noise another way, and it’s the noisy

noise, the noise that does annoy you. This is the opposite of that.”

Indeed, Diamond Shreddies has taken on a life of its own culturally. In April, George Gould, a retired lawyer in Surrey, B.C., with a puckish sense of humour, made the news when he auctioned off “the last square Shreddie” on eBay. He sent Kraft a mock note requesting confirmation it wouldn’t be making anymore square Shreddies. He received back an earnest form letter explaining “diamond Shreddies are simply a square Shreddie piece that has been turned at a 45 degree angle. We hope that this encourages people who eat Shreddies to look at Shreddies in a whole new way—and to have a good laugh as well!” The company also sent Gould a free coupon that he used along with his US$36 windfall from the “last square Shreddie” sale to buy eight boxes of Diamond Shreddies, later donated to a local food bank.

Whether the Diamond Shreddies boxes will become collector’s items destined for

eBay auction is unclear. Hutchinson says they will be phased out when the “win a diamond” boxes are all sold. The brand has been revived in consumers’ minds, she says, with buzz translating into national sales increases in the double digits.

Vonk wants to keep the campaign rolling. “We’re plotting what we’re going to do next,” she says. (There are backstage murmurs of a Diamond Shreddie “recall,” another risky ploy given the negative associations with “recall” in the consumer lexicon.) Vonk predicts the Diamond Shreddies approach will influence the way both Shreddies and Kraft advertise. “Most campaigns come and go,” she says. “But this one altered the history of the brand.” Within Kraft, the campaign has become a touchstone against which new pitches are measured, says Hutchinson.


Industry watchers are keeping tabs. “I’m interested in seeing how the campaign develops,” says Bradley. “My worry would be that the parody overtakes the core idea, which was reminding people how great Shreddies are. They’ve got to stay focused on keeping attention on Shreddies. It’s hard to keep that kind of campaign focused on original objectives and it’s easy to get carried away with the fun and creativity of mocking industry conventions.”

Industry consultant Burghardt believes the Diamond Shreddies could go down as one of the great Canadian ads, though he

says it belongs in a new genre: “It’s more in the category of a hugely successful gimmick,” he says. “It will be imitated for sure.”

Hopes are high at Ogilvy that the work will be rewarded at next week’s Clio Awards in Miami, a big event in the American advertising calendar. They’re the warm-up for the prestigious Cannes Lions awards, the Academy Awards of international advertising, in France this June. The June issue of Strategy, to be distributed at the event, will feature the cover line “Canada continues to tilt heads at Cannes,” illustrated with a Diamond Shreddie.

Already a star is born in Somerville, who was hired full-time at Ogilvy as a copywriter in January 2007. His current client roster includes Shreddies as well as Post’s Honeycomb, for which he invented Bee Boy, a wild

child raised by bees. “I’m a cereal killer,” he jokes. His Diamond Shreddies home run bemuses him. Shreddies was his favourite cereal growing up, he says. Of his breakfastfood epiphany, he is modest. “It was a fluke,” he says. “You could make a really bad CanCon movie about it.” Still, he knows his is a Cinderella story. “And I’m the prettiest girl at the ball,” he says with Colbert-esque mock seriousness. There’s one after-effect of the campaign he can’t shake, he says. “I think I’ve given myself Stockholm syndrome. Because I do believe the diamonds taste better. It sounds stupid, but they really do.” M