In a recent episode of Top Chef Canada, chef-testant Trista, anticipating elimination, mops up her tears with a piece of paper towel courtesy of SpongeTowels. As the tagline goes, nothing absorbs like it.
The Kruger Products brand – the official paper towel of Top Chef Canada – sponsored the $100,000 prize for the winner of the Food Network reality show, as well as a contest for a VIP trip to Toronto for dinner at a Mark McEwan restaurant and a chance to meet the judge, in hopes of absorbing some of the top-rated show's one million salivating fans.
It’s all part of a strategy to add engagement (and fun) to an otherwise low engagement (and fun) category, and to continue to build iconic status around a relatively new brand.
SpongeTowels was born in Canada in 2006, the offspring of an adoption and an identity change. Montreal-based Kruger purchased Scott Paper Ltd. from Scott Paper Inc. after the latter merged with Kimberly-Clark in 1997, following a ruling from the Canadian Competition Bureau. Kruger licensed the ScotTowels and Cottonnelle brands until 2006, at which point Kimberly-Clark was expected to introduce new products into Canada under those brand names.
Anticipating this, Kruger set about transferring its brand equity from ScotTowels in 2005, a process Kruger Products category director, paper towels, Wendy Mommersteeg describes as "a mammoth challenge." Changing the name was a hurdle made higher in Quebec, where ScotTowels was the generic term for paper towel.
To provide continuity ahead of the name change, Kruger first changed the packaging graphics.
"We know consumers spend three to seven seconds looking at the shelf and deciding on their product, so you have to make sure that your product is delivering the maximum shelf impact," says Mommersteeg. "Our iconic green splash [is] instantly recognizable, and it was designed to communicate absorbency, which is the number-one attribute that consumers are looking for in a paper towel."
That attribute came through in the quilted pattern of the paper towels, and in the new brand name, SpongeTowels. Enter advertising agency of record for English Canada, Toronto-based John St., to ensure that consumers noticed.
"Since the '90s when Bounty entered Canada, we were competing with this powerhouse in terms of efficacy and awareness, so we had to find a place to position our brand that didn't try to go head to head with them," says John St. team leader Heather Crawley.
The marketing team decided to take a new spin on the clinical, side-by-side demo. "The classic wipe, the mom as hero, the clinical white kitchen, the constant cues to efficacy and seriousness, the thought that a spill could ruin someone's day – we wanted to make it more real," Crawley says. "Let's not take it too seriously."
Mommersteeg points out the added challenge that "paper towel is a low interest category, so we wanted to create a brand personality that would stand out and literally bring the SpongeTowels to life. That's how we created the Sponge Pockets."
Over the next six years, grown men dressed as pillowy paper sponges have appeared alone or in packs in a series of TV spots, soaking up OJ, drying wet dogs, trashtalking other sponges and generally standing on guard. In Quebec, Kruger worked with then-AOR for French Canada Palm + Havas to create Spongie, played by comedian Francois Massicotte, who, according to Mommersteeg, has 90% awareness among Quebec women. "You can have the same consumer insight or the same creative strategy for both English and French,” she says, “you just need to make sure that the execution is tailored to the specific marketplace."
The strategy appears to be working, as the brand gained a five-point share increase from 12.7% in 2006 to 17.9% in 2010 in English Canada, and from 18.5% in 2007 to 20.4% in 2010 in Quebec, at which point current AOR Saint-Jacques Vallée Y&R won the business in Quebec.
In the spirit of fun that infuses the advertising, the brand also has a history of TV integrations, from segments on alternative cleaning products on Steven and Chris to kamikaze contestants flying off giant branded spinners on Wipeout!, which Mommersteeg jokingly refers to as the "ultimate demonstration of absorbency."
Next up for the brand is a guest spot on Quebec reality show Les chefs! premiering June 11 on CBC. SpongeTowels is sponsoring the third season, and is integrated into the "Le duel" portion of each episode, in which chefs battle it out and then viewers vote on a winner. As in Top Chef Canada, the Sponge Pockets will no doubt be pressed into service during the food fight.
The ScotTowels to SpongeTowels transitioning strategy not only resulted in a strongly differentiated brand, the creative concept has proven to be a platform with a lot of legs. "We had a lot of fun with it," says Crawley, adding that two new Spongemen spots are in the works for fall. "We got away with it too, because of the fact that we were in this fantasy world. It's proven to be so fruitful from a campaign ability standpoint, and it's been hugely important in building the brand and growing the business."