Robert Jones of Wolff Olins: satire in branding is welcome – but it doesn’t make you ‘adult’

Ribena’s new campaign features a blackcurrant grower called Andrew Berry talking about himself as a blackcurrant artist, trimming leaves like a sculptor, and holding a blackcurrant between his fingers like a priceless object. The ads end with the line ‘Blackcurrant artistry since 1938.’ What’s going on here? What does it tell us about ‘repositioning’ – that over-used marketing buzzword? And about today’s consumer culture?

If a brand is what you stand for in people’s minds, then repositioning tries to change what you stand for. Often it’s designed to make a product appeal to a new market. And the market everyone is obsessed by is young-ish adults – millennials. (These people, by the way, only exist in marketers’ imaginations.)

One trick to try to do this is the heritage trick. Talk about your hometown, or the provenance of your ingredients, or how your company started, or simply how old your company is. This ‘established in’ trick is almost universal these days, with consumers apparently in so much need of comfort and reassurance – though I’m not sure most of us really care when Morrisons started (1899, since you ask), or when John Lewis started being never knowingly undersold (1925).

Another trick is the artisan trick. Suggest that your product is not made in a factory but somehow in a workshop, an atelier, a kitchen – and it’s suddenly more sophisticated, more valuable and infinitely more millennial. It’s the artisan coffee that actually comes out of a machine. The handmade biscuits that come off a production line. The specially selected ingredients that weren’t.

At first sight, this is exactly what Ribena is up to. The campaign seems designed to reposition Ribena as an artisan product.

But actually Ribena is playing another, more sophisticated rhetorical trick – satire. None of us believes the ‘artisan’ nonsense that brands peddle these days. And by exaggerating ‘artisan’ into ‘artist’ – ‘craftsperson’ into ‘genius’ – this campaign becomes satire. The name Andrew Berry is, of course, part of the joke. The campaign flatters the consumer – ‘You’re smart enough to see through the marketing tricks’ – rather like Kia’s ad for the Niro car, with Robert de Niro ruefully admitting, ‘That’s marketing.’

I’d like to think the 1938 bit is satire too, though I suspect it’s not. But overall, this is a refreshing satire on that trend – while at the same reminding us that Ribena is actually made from real blackcurrants. It’s clever stuff.

Does it ‘reposition’ Ribena, though? Does it make Ribena into a sophisticated adult drink? The kind of thing millennials drink? I’m less convinced. The jaunty, swooshy packaging says ‘family’ not ‘adult,’ ‘wholesome’ but not ‘sophisticated.’ Unlike Innocent’s packaging, there’s no irony or satire.

A more promising way to reach a new market is to tweak the product itself – and Ribena is indeed introducing something called Ribena Frusion, a new range of blackcurrant-flavoured waters infused with fruits and botanicals. (Good name.)

But, though it may not quite grab a new market, this Ribena work is good news for branding. It suggests we’re moving into a more grown-up consumer culture. It recognises the consumer not as someone who’s not foolishly taken in by ‘artisan’ nonsense, but who knowingly joins in the whole marketing game. And in that sense, treating us adults is a really good thing.

Robert Jones is head of new thinking at Wolff Olins and the author of The Big Idea (2008) and Branding: A Very Short Introduction (2017). He is also a professor at the University of East Anglia, where he teaches the world’s first postgraduate course in brand leadership.

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