Sun Maid’s Sun Maid’s bonneted lady, now 90, is thinking outside the box. In TV ads, she’s a digital doll strolling through vineyards.
We all know her. Her long, dark hair. Her big, red bonnet. It’s the famous Sun Maid raisin girl.
For 90 years, she’s been sitting quietly in our lunch boxes and in our pantries, alongside the Quaker Oats man, the Peter Pan peanut butter boy, Uncle Ben, and Tony the Tiger.
Pretty. Silent. SM has smiled kindly at us, even when we’ve heartlessly traded her off for a more decadent Little Debbie in the school cafeteria. A real class act.
But now, for the first time in her very long life, the beauty on the box has been granted a Pilates body, an aerobics instructor’s voice, and a 30-second television spot to launch her new career as a company spokescharacter. Introduced last week, the 21st-century version of the raisin queen is a true digital dollface, tanned and toned and unmistakably going for the big-eyed Barbie, Shrek-girl, Disney-princess look. Think Sandra Bullock made of pixels, and you get the picture.
In her 30-second commercial, SM walks through a verdant valley (looking pretty darned bountiful herself in her tight, white peasant blouse) and in a vaguely seductive tone tells us that raisins are “nothing but grapes and sunshine.” Mark Bagley, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Sun Maid, says the company spent about $8 million transforming their spokesgal into the computer graphic, with hopes of “really capitalizing on the iconic value of her image.”
Until now, Bagley says, she has only been pictured on the front of packages. She has never actually sold the raisins inside. In other words, after 90 years of getting by on just her looks, SM has to start earning her keep.
Unlike the Pillsbury Doughboy or even Betty Crocker, the Sun Maid image is based on a real person – Lorraine Collett Petersen, a California girl who volunteered to hand out boxes of raisins at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Petersen was asked to pose with a tray of grapes for a painting that became the company’s logo in 1916.
The image was updated in 1970, when the Sun Maid’s decidedly ethnic features were smoothed out and her torso was slenderized. Bagley says that 1970 image will remain on all of the company’s packaging, but the new, digital SM will star in the television commercials and will appear on the company Web site, www.sunmaid.com).
Giving the raisin gal a pair of working gams, blinking eyes, and a real voice wasn’t an easy decision for the suits at Sun Maid. “We began doing research about a year ago to see how the Sun Maid coming to life would resonate with consumers,” Bagley says. (Would you stop eating raisins forever if her head moved? Mark “A” for “yes,” “B” for “no,” and “C” if you’re just taking this survey to get a free box of raisins.)
Bagley says once the executives felt comfortable with the idea of a malleable SM, “we had to decide: Would we use a real actress? Could we find someone who looked exactly like the painting? “We rapidly came to the conclusion that with animation, we could control every element,” he says.
Of course, it’s not unusual for companies to update their character logos to better fit with modern sensibilities. Aunt Jemima lost her bandanna and her apron awhile back. The Michelin man lost his spare tire, the Green Giant looks more Brad Pitt than brussels sprout, and Betty Crocker has had more work done than Cher. In the last few years, Ronald McDonald has been made over as a health nut, and KFC’s Colonel Sanders has gone hip-hop.
But in the advertising world, taking a character off a box and giving it life on the screen is a risky business, according to Brian Lanahan, managing director of Character L.L.C., a company that develops advertising icons for major brands. The Hamburger Helper hand, the animated Goldfish crackers, and the updated Mr. Clean were all created by his firm.
Get him talking about characters like the animated M&Ms, and you’d think they were dues-paying members of the Screen Actors Guild. In fact, Lanahan and others in the branding biz write entire biographies to go with their insurance lizards, cookie elves, and fabric-softener teddy bears. They decide whether the fictional figments will be sarcastic sophisticates, fun-loving free spirits, or perpetual do-gooders.
“Some characters are just meant to be a piece of iconography, like the Morton Salt girl,” Lanahan says. “They don’t need a story. People can essentially project whatever characteristics they want to onto them.” But once they move, he adds, they’re begging for depth. “There are a lot of pitfalls,” Lanahan says. “You could take a huge misstep and completely sully the perception people have of the character.”
Perception? Of a drawing on a box?
“When a character comes to life, they have to have a story behind them, provide some entertainment; otherwise they just become a shill, and that’s a terrible thing to do to a character, to make them into nothing but a shill.” Somebody please call the Energizer Bunny’s lawyer.
Diana Walczak, cofounder of Synthespian Studios , the computer graphics company in Massachusetts that was responsible for SM’s makeover, spent months developing storyboards for the new character.
“We decided to keep her in her environment, which is the vineyard, and to get her to tell us the message that raisins are grapes transformed by the magic of the sun,” Walczak says. Dostoyevsky it’s not, but the raisin people like it. Walczak admits the animated SM does look a lot like her big-screen princess counterparts, but adds that the target market for the ads are women between 25 and 44 with children ages 3 to 13 – the prime Disney princess years.
So what does Lanahan, the character builder, think of the new Sun Maid’s debut performance? “In a way this one feels like a teaser,” he says. “Now I want to know more. It looks like she lives in the valley of the Green Giant. My question is, what happens next?”
By Tanya Barrientos
Inquirer Staff Writer
Broad Implications for Private and Public Market Investors
GREENWICH, CT -A brand is worth whatever the customer is willing to pay for it. But creating the kind of brand that commands premium pricing is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s crowded and image-rich marketplace, according to a recent roundtable on branding and consumer product companies hosted by Lyceum Associates, Inc., a Greenwich-based financial research firm.
The roundtable met at the University Club in New York City on March 9, 2006 and included both industry practitioners and public and private market investors. Featured panel speakers included Clive Chajet, chairman of Chajet Consultancy; Karen Ballou, founder and chief executive officer of Ballou Technologies; Richard Kronengold, formerchief marketing officer of BBDO; Phil McIntyre, founder and chief executive officer of The Brand Gallery and PGM Artists; Scott Morris, chief marketing officer of The Meow Mix Company; Bob Rose, head of media strategy at Seiter & Miller; Susan Roy, co-founder partner at Prospero; and Cory Treffiletti, engagement specialist at Carat Fusion.
“The business of branding mixes the emotional pull of the marketplace with strategic thinking,” commented Sydney Williams, president of Lyceum. “By bringing together brand owners and brand consultants, we were able to establish fundamental questions that investors need to ask when considering investment opportunities in consumer product companies.
“A critical factor, as one of our panel speakers noted, is that brands have different values under different owners. Management has to be fully engaged in the branding process,and consistent with its strategy. Anything less results in reduced pricing power, particularly given the incredible sophistication of today’s consumers.”
The conversation covered brand positioning strategies, valuation, the challenge of new media outlets, as well as the private label landscape and the disruptive potential of wordof mouth advertising.
“The discussion group referenced more than two dozen companies and several different brands, ” said Mr. Williams. “It was a discussion rich in opinion and ideas.”
Lyceum Associates is a financial research firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut. As analternative to traditional Wall Street service, Lyceum offers interactive, full-length workshops and roundtables, which feature thought leaders from a variety of backgrounds and expertise. Lyceum comments periodically on themes relevant to investors through a monthly newsletter called Perspectives.
Lyceum Associates, Inc.