NY Times: Stuart Elliott/In Advertising: Hot Stuff

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Tuesday, December 11, 2001

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Hot Stuff

Those teenage aliens on the science-fiction TV series “Roswell” who slather everything they eat with Tabasco pepper sauce may do a double take — if aliens are capable of such reactions — next time they see ads for the product.

That’s because the diamond-shaped labels on the familiar bottles of Tabasco, made since 1868 by the McIlhenny Company, are getting a fanciful makeover in the print campaign. The goal is to reacquaint consumers, whether or not they hail from outer space, with the lineup of four Tabasco flavors.

The ads, by the Dallas office of DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group, build on the agency’s humorous print and television advertising that has included a Super Bowl commercial in which a mosquito bites a man who has poured Tabasco all over his pizza; the insect flies off and explodes in a tiny ball of fire, eliciting a grin from the man. Another popular ad showed a model ship inside a Tabasco bottle, with its sails and timbers charred almost beyond recognition.

The new print ads present amusing make-believe Tabasco labels, each tailored to the characteristics of the flavor inside the bottle. The initial batch of ads, which began appearing late last week in magazines, show funny mock labels for the four flavors of Tabasco: original red, green jalapeno, garlic and habanero.

If the idea of changing a well-known product’s well-known label sounds familiar, it could be because there seems to be a flurry of such ads. The device has of course been the focus of two decades’ worth of print advertising for Absolut vodka, created by TBWA/Chiat/Day in New York, part of the TBWA Worldwide division of Omnicom.

More recently, Heinz ketchup has appeared with comically altered labels in ads by Leo Burnett USA in Chicago, part of the Leo Burnett Worldwide division of the Bcom3 Group. In that instance, the ads have been deemed so successful that the client, the H.J. Heinz Company, is actually selling ketchup in stores that comes clad in some of the tongue-in-cheek labels.

The relabeling campaigns are another instance of how consumer marketers seek to stimulate interest in products in competitive categories, particularly in finding new ways to discuss product attributes like flavor varieties. It’s one thing to bring out additional flavors beyond what McIlhenny and so many other companies call “original flavor”; it’s quite another thing to woo consumers into actually buying them.

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“Our objective is to try to communicate that more than ever, McIlhenny Company has an entire family of flavors of Tabasco to satisfy your pepper needs,” says Martin Manion, vice president for corporate marketing at McIlhenny, based in Avery Island, La. “We want to educate people who are already brand loyal, and those who are not.”

Unlike some marketers like Absolut, the Tabasco market is broad-based, so the humor in the campaign can be an effective way to appeal to groups of disparate consumers.

“We go after a mind-set,” Mr. Manion says, because Tabasco is bought by people of “all age groups, ethnicities, education levels, income brackets.” He identifies that mind-set, based on consumer research among “our most loyal users,” as being “adventurous, taking calculated risks, liking variety and the spice of life” (pun intended probably).

Speaking of taking risks, there certainly is some in changing the Tabasco label as it appears in the ads, if consumers do not quickly get the joke. But the agency clearly thinks that’s a risk worth taking.

“It caused a little trepidation on our part, but the client embraced it almost immediately,” says Carl Warner, group creative director at DDB Dallas. “We showed other ideas, but we thought with the iconic status of the label and the brand, we could get away with it.”

The reason, says Janet Bustin, managing partner and group account director at DDB Dallas, is that “people have a strong definition of what the brand is all about” because “it’s a brand that has been around for more than 100 years.” The flavors, however, have been around only since 1993, introduced when Tabasco marked its 125th anniversary.

“The previous advertising focused mainly on the base brand, the original red sauce, for the past three years,” Ms. Bustin says. “This is an opportunity to do more of an educational focus on the flavors.”

From mild to wild, the flavors stack up this way: green jalapeno, garlic, original red and habanero. That’s a relative concept, according to the ads.

“In this case,” the ad for jalapeno reads, with the words printed on the mock label of the bottle, “milder only means it will take less time to recover from it.” For garlic, it’s not the heat, it’s, well, as the ad proclaims: “Whatever you do, for cryin’ out loud after you eat it, just don’t breathe on anyone.”

For the hottest of the hot, habanero, the imaginary label declares, “It’s what you should eat if you ever suspect your tongue is a witch.”

(The ad for original red is still in production.)

Tabasco devotees “have strong feelings about the brand,” Mr. Warner says, and “are proud of their ability to absorb the intense heat.”

He describes their attitude as “courage under fire” as in “Watch me; I can handle this stuff,” along with a belief that “the brand is an icon and it must never let them down by being weak.”

Mr. Manion says that McIlhenny is “lucky to the degree we have an icon brand” that can be shown in ads with labels totally different from those consumers will find when they go shopping for pepper sauce.

“We believe it’s strong enough for us” to go ahead with the idea after DDB Dallas proposed it, he adds.

“We thought the largest hurdle would be with our trademark attorneys,” Mr. Manion says, laughing, “but we cleared that.”

Indeed, Ms. Bustin says, “we’ve already played with the idea” of reproducing the fanciful labels for Tabasco merchandise like T-shirts and other clothing as well as for bottles to be sold to food service companies for use in restaurants.

“People who’ve seen novelty bottles we’d created with these labels had a great response,” she adds.

The campaign will appear in 13 publications, which will run more than 50 pages of the ads through December 2002. Some are magazines in which Tabasco has previously advertised, Mr. Manion says, listing Cooking Light, Food and Wine, Men’s Health, People and Rolling Stone. The rest are new for Tabasco, he adds, listing ESPN The Magazine, InStyle, Marie Claire, Maxim, Men’s Journal, Shape, Vibe and Wired.

Sorry, “Roswell” denizens, no ads in New Mexico Magazine or Popular Space Traveler.

Mr. Manion and the DDB Dallas executives decline to discuss the budget for the campaign, though Mr. Manion says it will be “more than we’ve spent previously.”

According to CMR, the ad tracking service owned by Taylor Nelson Sofres, Tabasco spent $2.6 million to advertise in 2000, while in the first nine months of 2001, the latest period for which data is available, spending totaled $2.9 million.