Perspective: Sticky Situation

What happens when a brand takes a proven message and tries something abstract?

In the Olde Booke of Branding Wisdom—well, if there is one—is writ an important lesson: Just because your brand’s been around for a century doesn’t mean you can stray off message. History hands us few better examples than the one illustrated by the ads here—suited, as it turns out, to the nippy weather nearly upon us. Founded in 1912, ChapStick is today so dominant that its trade name often stands in for the entire lip-balm category. Its promise of sealing and protecting is virtually built into our consumer DNA, so how could anyone mess it up? Just watch.

In 1968, Suzy Chaffee whizzed onto American TV during that year’s Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. That she came in 28th in the Women’s Downhill might have been more upsetting to her had she not realized the attention the cameramen were giving her in that silver body suit. Chaffee did look terrific, but she also knew a thing or two about being out in the cold. And somewhere in the marketing department of the A.H. Robbins Co.—makers of ChapStick lip balm—the light went on.

By the 1970s, Chaffee was back, this time as Suzy Chapstick. In TV spots and print ads like the one above, Chaffee was the ideal messenger for Robbins’ core brand, and the message couldn’t have been easier to remember: It’s ChapStick Weather, said Suzy, so protect your lips. It was the ultimate “duh” directive; it was also perfect. “They were leveraging the expertise of an individual who knew something about chapped lips,” said John Parham, president of brand extension agency Parham Santana. “It’s a modern, classic ad—and very believable.”

ChapStick stuck with it, too, going on to hire other highly popular female athletes (Dorothy Hamill, Picabo Street) to deliver much the same message. So how did this do-right brand wind up with the ad opposite—one that raised cries of confusion and rage from countless women when it appeared late last year? Parham waves aside the widespread accusations of sexism. Instead, he says, an equally insidious disease was at work—presumptuousness. “A lot of brands do this,” he sighed. “ChapStick is 100 years old. They probably said, ‘Let’s go big! Let’s do the it’s-part-of-our-lives strategy!’ But the problem is that it so broadens the focus that the marketing becomes meaningless.”

By going wide and abstract with a bizarre ad, ChapStick seemed to cling to an abstruse belief that the brand had become more about our lives than our lips. Wrong. The only thing truly lost in those couch cushions was relevancy—that and the goodwill among female buyers that stars like Hamill, Street and, of course, Chaffee had built up over decades. Parent Pfizer pulled the ad and posted an apology. Then (perhaps) it wondered if that time-honored message—It’s cold outside, so protect your lips, stupid—wasn’t so bad after all.