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Monday, May 07, 2007

Tired brands: Ovaltine

When a brand falls asleep

In 2002, the Ovaltine brand celebrated its 98th birthday. That same year, it closed its UK factory and was forced to admit it had finally lost its main market. The Ovaltine brand was put up for sale and, at the time of writing, no interested buyers have emerged.

First produced by a Swiss food company in 1904, the malt drink with added vitamins became the UK’s favourite bedtime drink. However, although commonly sipped to get a good night’s sleep, the original advertising for the brand highlighted opposite qualities. Indeed, Ovaltine was an official sponsor of the 1948 Olympics and was billed as an ‘energy drink’ years before the term became widely adopted. In 1953, it was used by Sir Edmund Hillary on his famous Everest expedition and it was even reported to cure impotence, decades before the arrival of Viagra.

Curiously, this image was reversed in the later 20th century, and it became more popular as a cure for insomnia than a tonic for athletes and the sexually challenged. As Mark Lawson wrote in the Guardian in June 2002, it also became seen as a drink for the elderly through advertising campaigns steeped in nostalgia:

The singing kiddies of the radio show, winsome in their Winceyette pyjamas, were accurate reflections of contemporary childhood at the time they started but, as they continued to be the official faces of the brand, kept sending the subliminal image that it was something your granny used to drink. In common with cocoa and Horlicks, Ovaltine took on the image of the sedative nightcap of veterans. Any potential buyer for the drink might reflect that the backwards-looking website Sterling Time – dedicated to ‘British nostalgia. . . Englishness and patriotism’ – contains a large section memorialising the Ovaltineys [the children used for the 1930s Ovaltine campaigns].

Future anthropologists may also be interested in the fact that so many people were once drawn to draughts reputed to put you out for the night. Part of the reason for the decline of Ovaltine is surely that more recent generations exist in a habitual state of exhaustion, caused by longer working hours, the collapse of public transport and the cult of intensive, hands-on parenting among young mums and dads. They are also far more likely than their grandparents to drink wine nightly and have the option of late-night or allnight television: all reliable knockouts. Graham Norton, Jacob’s Creek and long-distance commuting now achieve much of what Ovaltine used to.

When Ovaltine sales started to slip, it launched spin offs such as Chocolate Ovaltine, Ovaltine Light and Ovaltine Power. It also started to use contemporary children in its advertising, in its attempt to reposition itself as a ‘now brand’ as opposed to a ‘then brand’.

However, unlike other drink brands – such as Lucozade, which moved from medicine status to sporty essential through clever marketing – Ovaltine has not been able to shake off its sleepy, nostalgic identity. Whether a new owner will be able to perform such a miracle remains to be seen.

Lessons from Ovaltine

  • Don’t build unpopular brand associations. ‘The problem of this traditional bedtime cuppa is that it had become associated with two unpopular commodities, nostalgia and somnolence,’ wrote Mark Lawson.
  • Don’t fall into the nostalgia trap. Nostalgia can be a powerful selling force, but it can also ultimately make a brand irrelevant to the present market.

1 comment:

Sara, Johan, Geetika get Googlicious said...

I really need to find a tired consumer brand that needs a revamp for a college assignment (design an integrated marketing communications plan). Problem is we need to be able to find some info online as regards its position in market vis-a-vis competitors, market shaer etc. We keep having to scrap our ideas for this reason. any suggestions?