Creative Focus: For the Love of Flakes

For more than 10 years, Frosted Flakes kept its fans hidden in shadows. Last March, Leo Burnett introduced a new campaign directed by Christopher Guest.
In two weeks, viewers will see a whole new level of “Obsession.”
The Brief
In the mid-’80s, Kellogg’s and Leo Burnett launched “Shadows,” a campaign in which adults–concealed in darkness like Mafia informants on TV–confessed their love for Frosted Flakes. In the next 10 years, Burnett played with the concept, sometimes revealing the identity of the confessor or using shadow-concealed celebrities like Ken Griffey Jr.
But by 1995, the concept had grown stale. Adults weren’t ashamed to eat kids cereal and “Shadows” lost its relevance. “[The campaign] relied on a hidden desire for the food,” says Paul Norman, Kellogg’s vice president of marketing. “Now people were eating it out in the open.”
Even five years into the effort, Burnett’s executives had begun to rethink the position. Unfortunately, no new ideas captured the brand’s essence as well as “Shadows,” says Burnett copywriter/creative director Ned Crowley. So the campaign ran for another five years until finally going dark in 1997.
The Idea
During the next year, Crowley and art director Bob Akers worked on a follow-up. Newly tapped as creative directors, the two men stole minutes from their long management days trying to create a winning successor.
“We have a secret lunch spot where we go, and we don’t go there for social reasons. We always hit gold there,” Akers says. Over a spicy curry dish, they discussed why “Shadows” wasn’t working, and how to correct it. They threw out ideas. Maybe a jingle with Tony singing! Then inspiration hit. “We thought, ‘What if we take the opposite approach [from “Shadows”] and turn the lights on,’ ” Crowley says. Shame would be replaced with pride.
Consumers were the new centerpiece, but Akers and Crowley kept one link with the past: Tony the Tiger. “He’s our Michael Jordan,” Crowley says. You don’t bench him when he’s on your roster, he adds.
But they didn’t want to lose sight of the campaign’s essence: Frosted Flakes eaters. “There was either too much about the brand and not enough Tony, or there was too much Tony and not enough about the brand,” Akers says. Over two years, the team pitched between 15 and 20 campaigns to the client.
During that time, the Battle Creek, Mich., food giant was not running any advertising for Frosted Flakes directed specifically at adults. Sales started to slip, with the brand seeing only single-digit growth from 1997 to 1998. Kellogg’s needed to target adults. After much consideration, Kellogg’s “just put on the brakes,” says Crowley. The two were asked to review all the ideas they had pitched.
The two men covered the walls of an agency conference room with their axed ideas. They also called in Clive Sirkin, who had come on as the brand’s account supervisor at Burnett. He keyed in on cereal lovers confessing their passion for the product. “It took all the relevance of ‘Shadows’ and threw out what wasn’t working,” says Sirkin.
The Pitch
The early versions of the campaign were, well, flaky. “The thing that got in our way initially was to call the characters Frosted ‘Flakes,’ ” Crowley says. The idea was to put the cereal lovers in a confessional setting, like a meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous. They would stand up and introduce themselves as “Frosted Flakes” and describe their attachments.
Each character would represent one product aspect. Curtis, an overzealous stock boy, stood for the feelings people had about the brand; other characters would be enamored of Tony to the point of “groupiedom,” showing the product’s iconic stature. A character to be introduced shortly–known as the collector–will promote the cereal itself.
And instead of focusing too heavily on Tony, the campaign moved the famous cartoon tiger to the background. While they briefly considered using Tony to close the spots, Akers and Crowley thought it broke the “reality” of the cereal-obsessed characters. Instead, Tony would appear only briefly, almost as an extra. “We pitched him as Hitchcock,” Crowley says.
Reducing Tony’s role was an easy sell compared with the overall concept. Calling the target market “flakes” is a dubious prospect for any client, and even more so for conservative Kellogg’s. But with the clock ticking, the creatives stuck to their guns. With the right director, they felt, the idea would shine.
Enter Sir Christopher Guest. The comedic actor and director who appeared in This Is Spinal Tap had received critical acclaim for his mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman. His light touch with offbeat characters would keep the campaign from becoming “sarcastic and cynical,” Crowley says. “With a different director, you would think, ‘Aren’t these weird people?’ “
The team sent the storyboards to Guest, but he politely declined. Stunned, the team phoned Guest and asked him why. Did he have problems working for a brand like Frosted Flakes? Did he object to putting an animated Tony in the spots?
Guest had only one objection: He did not want the campaign’s heroes characterized as “flakes.” “He felt it was derogatory and said it was giving away the joke,” Crowley says. So they took it out.
With Guest secured, the duo left Burnett’s 1998 Christmas party to call Kellogg’s. The company was having its own reservations about the spots. “But we had a narrow window of opportunity [to work with Guest], and we said, ‘Trust us. We’ll make it work,’ ” Akers says.
The Execution
In mid-December, Crowley and Akers began casting. To get the right feel, the actors had to be comfortable with improvisation. As they read from their scripts, Guest threw different questions at the actors to see how they handled it, Crowley says. “It was clear who got it, and who didn’t,” Akers says. But working with a director of Guest’s stature expanded the talent pool considerably. The actor Jay Paulson, who plays Curtis, was familiar with the director’s style.
On the set, Guest was a quiet but commanding presence, perhaps because he had recently inherited his title. [“He only made us genuflect the first couple of days,” Crowley jokes.] He treated the scripts with reverence but used them as a springboard for more ideas. Often he would approach Crowley and Akers with an idea, always broached in a whisper. “He’d go [affecting a soft whisper], ‘I have this idea of a guy ironing the boxes,’ ” Crowley says.
To help the animators in post-production, one actor was cast as Tony. His job was to walk around in the background, dressed head to toe in orange Spandex. “He looked like a giant orange sperm from a Woody Allen movie,” Crowley says.
On Dec. 24, shooting wrapped and Guest headed off to his house in Utah with wife Jamie Lee Curtis [whose anniversary he had forgotten during the shoot], leaving Akers and Crowley with the rough footage of the new campaign.
The Results
The team took time off for the holidays before heading into editing and post-production. With one week to get the spots ready, “we didn’t have that time to massage and work the spots,” Akers says. Nevertheless, by the February sales meeting, the team had six spots, though the client had requested only one. The new “Obsession” campaign introduced two characters: Curtis, a stock boy who comes to work early to set, level and buff the Frosted Flakes area in the cereal aisle, and Steve and Cathy, who wait outside Kellogg’s headquarters for a glimpse of Tony.
All six of the spots shown to the Kellogg’s sales force enjoyed a rousing reception, says Kellogg’s Norman. “That’s when we knew we had something,” Crowley says. “After that, the fun part was trying to jam Tony into all of it.” Akers and Crowley worked with an animator to put Tony somewhere in the background. “When we got really playful, we made him more of a character, like putting him on a bicycle or walking a dog,” Akers says.
The spots have been on air since March, and Frosted Flakes has seen an improvement in sales. Year-to-date totals in October 1999 have grown more than 13 percent since the previous year, and the brand has gained a half point in volume share, according to Information Resources Inc.
The Future
Early 2000 will debut “The Collector,” a character devoted to the actual flakes. The team has enough footage for roughly 40 more commercials using the same charming characters, but it’s unlikely they will reappear in later executions. “We want it to appear as if there are masses of people out there, rather than revisit Curtis or the groupies,” Akers says.
The team has been given the green light to produce a new round of spots, and Guest is going to take a break from shooting his latest film, Untitled Dogumentary, to direct new spots in January. “My guess is we’ll be going back to our lunch place,” Akers says.