Ellie Kemper Transforms Buick

Ellie Kemper“Storytelling” is all the rage in marketing these days, to the point where it’s become a cliché. While the term is probably evoked in every single ad agency presentation and “content” meeting these days, marketers – ranging from the mediocre to the genius – have always understood its power.

David Ogilvy got it. In 1958, he wrote this headline: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” Long copy follows under a photo of two, well dressed children who appear to have just finished their day at a prestigious private school, walking out from a bucolic village store carrying bags a groceries toward a waiting Rolls Royce. While the copy is essentially bullet points of product features, the headline and imagery paint a rich portrait of a privileged life, of escape to a soundproof bubble, away from the noise, distractions and bother of those annoying “ordinary” people.

On the other end of socio-economic spectrum, we have Bill Bernbach’s 1964 “Snow Plow” ad from Volkswagen.  “Did you ever wonder how the man who drives the snow plow, drives to the snowplow?  This one drives a Volkswagen.”

A beautiful, minimalist 60-second TV ad that lets the video and just a snippet of voiceover narration tell a memorable and captivating story.

The new Buick campaign, starring “The Office” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” actress Ellie Kemper, isn’t as elegant as either of these classics, but it is equally compelling in its own, charming way.

Buick has been working hard to let car buyers know that their redesigned cars aren’t what you think they are. Borrowing a page from “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” their 2015 TV spot shows people admiring their friends’ beautiful new cars, Buicks, to great confusion. “I thought they bought a Buick!” One spot shows two attractive young women at outside a nightclub, one with head buried in her mobile phone while the other spots a hunk of a good looking man getting out of a Buick SUV. “Is that a Buick,” one asks? The other responds, “My grandpa drove a Buick.” “That’s not your grandpa,” replies the friend.

Yes, the new Buick is not what you think and deserves to be checked out. A very sound strategy, and, in my view, a solid execution. The campaign featured several slice-of-life “mini-stories” cut together to make its point.

The Ellie Kemper campaign, launched with a 3-minute video, elevates the strategy by telling a better, more engaging story. Titled “Imagine Yourself,” it shows the approachable, personable and (attractively) nerdy young actress dream of a happy future with Buick in her life.

I stumbled on the ad when looking for examples to teach my graduate students about a qualitative research technique we often used called the “Mind Cloud.” The purpose of this exercise is to see how a new marketing element – an ad, logo, concept statement, anything at all really – impacts current perceptions. Does the new stimulus build on the brand’s strengths? Does it address and help correct negative perceptions?

It’s a simple, but powerful exercise that provides strong indicators of whether you are on the right track both strategically and executionally. I won’t go into the methodological details here, but when I used the Millennials of my class as respondents – clearly Buick’s target here – the results were exceptionally positive.

Before exposure to the video, Buick’s perceptions among my students were virtually all negative. Words associated with the brand included “old,” “grandparents,” “metallic (not in a good way),” “clunky,” “bad design”” and more.

After viewing the ad, and asking to write down any words or feelings specifically associated with Buick in that spot, we heard “young,” “attractive,” “fun,” “stylish,” “modern” and other positive terminology.

The exercise tells us that the video directly and effectively addresses the brands perceived weaknesses, shifting perceptions from “grandparents” to “young” and “clunky to stylish.” While the previous, “Is That A Buick?” campaign hammers home the same points, and is seemingly unassailable from a strategic point of view, the Ellie Kemper campaign is far more engaging, and is likely to be more effective in changing attitudes.

For not all “storytelling” is equal. It may be a big generalization, but it seems that “slice-of-life,” a tried and true approach throughout the years, has grown increasingly contrived and trite. We’ve grown too sophisticated as consumers of both products and media to identify with those kinds of stock characters or buy into those situations. Dad and son playing baseball with Tony the Tiger before settling in for a bowl of Frosted Flakes? A family of four approaching a state of near ecstasy as they sit around the kitchen eating Yoplait? Really? It’s so 1960’s.

“Is That A Buick” is certainly more plausible, but not funny or ironic enough in the least to really make it sing. It just seems so fake. Of course, Ellie Kemper for Buick is equally fake. But the power of an engaging story makes it real and recognizable.  We can’t help being drawn in as Kemper’s character flirts shamelessly and fantasizes about love, marriage and children. She’s so likeable in the role that you can’t help but empathize with her fictitious dreams and hope that she lives happily ever after.

Product features and benefits are clearly communicated, but made more powerful in the context of Buick transforming Ellie’s life. “Imagine Yourself” isn’t just about a car. It’s about Buick helping you live a better, more fulfilling life in a very human, relatable way.

  • Ingrid
    Posted at 08:10h, 10 February Reply

    Great ad. I have so much more respect for Buick after seeing this!

  • Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango
    Posted at 10:20h, 10 February Reply

    Great article, Jeff. Cute ad, too – thanks for sharing it. I was at first thinking 3 minutes was too long for a Buick spot, but it moved briskly. However, at only 44,000 views to date, this YouTube video is not having much impact. I’m surprised GM didn’t air at least a shortened version during the Super Bowl.

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