My Altoids can beat up their Altoids!
March 13, 2008
In 1995, Mark Faulkner and I created the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids. We made all of the work and managed the account for a decade. When we left Leo Burnett in 2003, we handed the reigns to our best lieutenants and they carried on marvelously.
Now the business is at BBDO Chicago. And while that agency is a direct competitor and Altoids is my dearly beloved I will try mightily to avoid sour grapes –unless of course referring to a new flavor.
The new campaign does not suck. But it is not brilliant either. What is brilliant about the new campaign is that it does not suck. No small feat. Altoids advertising seized popular culture in a way few ad campaigns do. Repeating that success with something different is perhaps a no-win situation. But doing more of the same an even dicier proposition.
So Altoids did what Absolut vodka did. They evolved their campaign, retaining elements, redesigning some, and losing others. You can still see the brands DNA in the language and typography as well as in the tone and manner. Whether it comes across as a crude face-lift or a brilliant recreation I’m still on the fence.
BBDO & Altoids walked away from “Curiously Strong” and replaced it with “a slap to the cerebellum.” The latter is a nifty headline; much like the ones I treasured writing. A big, antiquated noun in cerebellum. Fun verb like slap. Love it. But tis no ‘curious strength.’
For me, the pairing of those two words was everything: the brand essence, the strategy, a business idea, and the best expression of a brand I’d ever seen. In fact, we look for such words for all of our clients now. Finding them is hard. Hold on to them when you do.
To walk away from “Curiously Strong Mints” as theme for Altoids is ballsy but a mistake. I suppose in some respects a slap to the cerebellum is curious, implying strength. But it’s also peculiar and small. True story- At the campaign’s birth we had a great line: “Mints so strong they come in a metal box.” There was considerable debate to make it our theme. And it almost was. Thankfully, it became our very first headline instead. That should have happened here.
The headline BBDO are using in their first ad “Awakens like a horsewhip on the back flesh” is certainly curious and strong. Brutal too. Though not my style, I haven’t a problem with its meanness. It’s not like we never played that card. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if such a line came from our bullpen.
Relatively new for Altoids is a TV commercial. In it a Victorian gal solves a dilemma for a zany, Victorian inventor by eating an Altoids. Voila! They discover a barnyard animal stuck in his wacky Victorian machinery. Sort of get it. Sort of don’t. It has a Harry Potter look, which is appropriate, if cliché. But, again, the strategy is no longer about curious strength. Instead they are positioning Altoids as a smart-maker, awkwardly reminiscent of Mentos. A disappointment. Last detail: Isn’t the cerebellum used for motor functions and not thinking? Did no one look up the word? The line makes no sense in context with the commercial. This wouldn’t matter (as much) if it were merely a headline in a print ad.
So, a mixed review from the Gods of Advertising. The new campaign will get noticed. And it does pick up where we left off. But it only breaks new ground by abandoning the world’s most money theme line. And that’s not using your cerebellum.