Cadbury is celebrating its birthday in the basement of the benefit ladder

Brand birthdays seem like a big deal to marketers, but consumers don’t care and any money spent celebrating them would be better spent elsewhere.

Birthdays? Who needs them? I mean, kids do. Try skipping one of theirs and you lose a testicle. But that’s because of all the toys and sugar and piñatas (a toy filled with sugar). As we age and the number of birthdays ticks past 50, 60, 70, 200… the whole thing becomes arbitrary and so evidently self-absorbed that it becomes slightly unnecessary.

Take Cadbury, for example. John Cadbury had no aspirations of a global brand, billions in revenues, double-centenaries or even chocolate bars when he opened his little shop in Birmingham in 1824. The young Quaker had a far more basic and worthy objective. He wanted the denizens of the Midlands to drink less booze. And he believed that if his hand-ground cocoa powder and drinking chocolate were delicious enough, it might just do the trick.

It didn’t. But one thing led to another, as it occasionally does.

A committed and unusual founder. In the right place at the right time. With an innovative new approach. A dash of practical religious fervour. Unquestioning commitment to quality. A small but entranced segment of the market. A hefty dollop of luck. And the ultimate rarity: an extended familial line completely devoid of half-wits. Mix them together, generously. And – unlike the thousands of other, long-forgotten enterprises that were born in 1824 – Cadbury not only survived but prospered.

We end up talking about ourselves and our organisational history rather than speaking to consumer needs.

Indeed, the brand may be in better shape exactly two centuries later than at any period in its illustrious past. A team of exceptional Mondelez marketers working with independent agency VCCP have positioned the brand beautifully. Brand perceptions, demand and profits are as good as they have ever been.

Which brings us back to birthdays. Even a brand as big as Cadbury and a team as talented as the one at Mondelez fell for the same illusory allure of The Big Anniversary. A management team sees a major milestone – the quarter-century, the centenary, God help us the double-centenary – approaching from over the horizon several years out. And the combined corporate thought is, “Well, we have to do something… something big”.

Cadbury celebrates 200 years with ‘consistent’ message of generosity

How Cadbury’s has previously used the benefit ladder

But do you? Despite the obvious minor advantages of brand birthdays – the sliver of PR, the momentary buzz inside HQ and a fleeting reinforcement of brand heritage – anniversaries fall foul of a basic premise of positioning. Namely, that we end up talking about ourselves and our organisational history rather than speaking to consumer needs. It’s not about us. It was always about them. Even on our birthday.

On the benefit ladder, a concept almost as old as Cadbury itself, anniversaries usually sit low in terms of impact, market orientation and originality. Cadbury’s longevity provides us with a rare chance to study the benefit ladder at each of its stages and then put anniversaries in their appropriate place.

1. Signalling

Credit: Cadbury Limited (*)

On the ground floor of the benefit ladder, not even deigning to reach for the first rung, sits signalling. When we talk of signalling, we mean the general impact that a brand’s presence in a specific advertising medium signals to the market, irrespective of what it is trying to say in that ad.

On occasion, brands do this for us. Eschewing even the most basic claim, they simply opt for their logo and a suitably impressive media context. “Look at me,” the signalling approach demands. “Look how much fucking money I’ve blown on this giant ad. Imagine how successful I must be to do this. Can you appreciate the confidence in my brand and the size of demand that entitle me to do shit like this?”

Marketers underestimate the signalling effect of simply turning up in the right media with the right spend at the right time, irrespective of the message that might be tagged along with it. If 90% of success in life is showing up, the same portion of advertising effectiveness can sometimes be attributed to just being there. Brute salience and brand signalling are basic but powerful building blocks, in and of themselves.

2. Product feature

Credit: Cadbury Limited (*)

Up one level is that most basic approach to positioning, in which a brand promotes one or more of its features to the market. For Cadbury, an initial focus on purity was eventually replaced with the now familiar product truth of providing not one, but one and a half glasses of milk in every bar. Note the rhetorical and lyrical power of the implied extra half-glass. Only in Adland is 1.5 greater than two.

The obvious criticism of this kind of advertising is that it also talks too much about the product and not enough about the consumer. Subsequent benefits are only implied – a tenuous path to purchase at the best of times.

As obvious as all of this sounds, it’s a supremely common limitation of so much current advertising. Too many companies talk about their process, their product and their features, and ignore the corresponding, far more important implications for the person paying for it. I remember working for 3M when it advertised its frying pan as ‘Made with 3M innovation’. And I also remember the consumer in a focus group asking me “what will it do to my eggs?”.

Cadbury’s current ads have something its ‘Gorilla’ lacked – legs

3. Consumer benefit

Credit: Cadbury Limited (*)

Cadbury seems to have caught onto this issue at some point in its evolution. The tenor of its advertising changed from the glass and a half to what that glass and a half means to you, the consumer. The company shifted focus to the creamy benefit and superior taste that so much milk in each bar conferred.

The power of a consumer benefit, especially when it focuses on a single strong, important advantage for an extended period, cannot be understated. It is common to teach the benefit ladder in a hierarchical way, inferring that the higher up the ladder you go, the more effective your communications will become. I am not so sure. While a campaign with a benefit will almost always trump one focused on features, moving up to symbolism and purpose – as marketers are now discovering – does not guarantee superiority.

Category dynamics, the brute strength of your benefit and the advantage of any relative differentiation sometimes dictate that this mid-rung position is actually the optimum place to position many brands. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

4. Symbolic message

Credit: Cadbury Limited (*)

Cadbury’s modern era, and the genius input of agency VCCP, extended the now iconic one-and-a-half glasses message higher up the benefit ladder – this time from an entrenched consumer benefit to a symbolic message about generosity. Cadbury regards this approach as purpose-based, and who am I to argue? But I would suggest that this is product-centred, symbolic storytelling at its finest.

By linking the brand (always central to the stories) to quiet, everyday acts of generosity, Cadbury’s functional role melts together with a key category entry point, the consumer benefit and its emotional symbolism. And the fact that the glass-and-a-half product feature provides the reason to believe only strengthens this award-winning work. Sometimes a lower rung in the benefit ladder supports the higher one with extra stability. A high-water mark in modern advertising history. Perhaps the best of the past 10 years?

5. Sociocultural purpose

Too often, we see brands striving to reach even higher. Not content with associating their brand with high-end symbolic values, some marketing teams strive to take a sociocultural position on one or more societal issues. As more and more brands are discovering, unless your brand has a proper sociocultural purpose baked into its DNA and is prepared to lose customers and share over it, this is rarely fertile turf.

Cadbury launched its infamous Unity Bar in India for example, using dark, blended, milk and white chocolate into a single bar in a ham-fisted attempt to instigate national unity on Independence Day. As is now the norm, this crude attempt by a chocolate bar to make a cultural comment on a complex social issue was met with general dismay and mockery. Partly because chocolate bars really should stay in their confectionery lane. And partly because always putting the white chunks at the top of the bar and the darkest chunks down the bottom wasn’t the best bit of product design to come out of Cadbury’s R&D team.

Placing birthdays on the benefit ladder

So where do we put anniversaries in all of this? One step up from signalling, but beneath everything else.

Source: Mark RitsonNo-one in the consumer world gives even the slightest fuck about your birthday. Certainly, no-one is offended by Cadbury celebrating its 200th year. But other than a quick “aw, that’s nice”, consumers really don’t care either. You just spent six months and half your budget celebrating a product feature that isn’t even a feature. If the modern mantra of marketing is that consumers really don’t care that much about brands, why bother with birthdays?

I’m not saying any of this damages Cadbury’s brand. But there is the pertinent issue of the opportunity cost of spending so much time and money and media on something that is usually less impactful than more contemporary, strategically derived advertising messages. It’s like going on a date and, rather than asking lots of interesting questions and faking a love for classical music, you just keep mentioning that it’s your birthday and how old you are. Your date isn’t going to storm out of the restaurant. But your odds of getting laid have gone from average to unlikely.

To be fair, in the case of Cadbury a lot of this has been offset by having a very good creative agency. VCCP has flexed every one of its planning and creative muscles to avoid the usual masturbatory display that usually ensues with every significant brand anniversary. There’s the very clever overlay of 200 within the Cadbury logo. And the even cleverer way VCCP has used this milestone, its existing gangbuster work and the knowledge that advertising wear-out is largely a myth to replay its corner-shop message in old clothes once again. It’s about as good a job as you will see done with a dreaded anniversary brief.

Cadbury celebrates 200 years with ‘consistent’ message of generosity

But even the advanced tactical skills of VCCP cannot avoid the other downside of the anniversary hustle so apparent from the Cadbury campaign. Not only does a centenary force you to talk about yourself, it also forces you to do so in the past tense. Inevitably anniversaries look backwards and, in doing so, throw a significant amount of dust all over the brand. In my experience that’s a very dangerous thing to do. The bigger and older the brand, the more it should focus on the future, lest it become that most dreaded of branding things: an iconic brand.

Maybe the most helpful thing to do is to forget the last 200 years and worry about the next three.

Icons are ancient. Icons are priceless. Icons are venerated. But what they are not is alive. Or desired. Or consumed. I’ve worked on my fair share of icons during my career and all of them were more known for their past than their present. That’s not a pleasant branding place to be. These are exactly the kind of brands that get the big birthdays, and yet also exactly the ones that should avoid spending their marketing budgets rekindling sepia images of long-dead consumers opening ancient packaging.

Maybe the most helpful thing to do is to forget the last 200 years and worry about the next three. Isn’t that what most of us do on a birthday, once we grow up and learn to ignore the piñatas?

The next time you see footage of a person turning 100, I bet they don’t look celebratory or especially interested in the milestones they have experienced. Most new centenarians just sit there gibbering, with a look that says they are worried whether they will make it to Christmas. Brands should follow suit.

I suppose this is mostly a warning to the other brands looking at their own encroaching anniversaries. Consumer culture is now a well-established, mature affair. Lots of brands are going to turn 25, 50 or 100 this year. Umbro, MG, Duracell, Belstaff, MGM, Loro Piana and maybe Adidas will all celebrate a centenary this year. I challenge all of them to ignore the anniversary trap. Just because you can celebrate it and it’s obvious and you have lots of time and it seems like the right thing to do, it does not mean you should. I mean, put a few quid into a big night for the employees but don’t bother the consumer with any of it. They don’t care. Neither should you.

* Every reasonable effort has been made to identify and attribute complete and correct credits of copyright works. If there are errors or omissions, please contact Marketing Week so that corrections can be addressed and efforts made to make corrections to the extent required.



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  1. julian smith 15 Jan 2024

    There is something powerful about the notion of “always” Mark – as deployed here (“there’s always been a glass and a half in everyone”). It goes beyond the traditional birthday narrative. It says unchanging and classic in a good way. It reinforces quality. It’s for brands rooted in fundamental human values. Only a few brands can legitimately say it. As I recall, Coca-Cola significantly grew the brand in the 1990’s with their “Always” campaign.

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