Dos Equis: when an advertising character overpowers the brand

‘The most interesting man in the world’ for Dos Equis would surely rank among the handful of refreshingly different campaigns in the beer category. It succeeded in creating a mystique around the central protagonist ‘the most interesting man in the world’ played by Jonathan Goldsmith. It also had some great copywriting going for it. Sample these: 

The campaign was created in 2006 by Euro RSCG Worldwide and became hugely popular and even considered meme-worthy. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis.” and ‘Stay thirsty, my friends’ became internet sensations. A protagonist who looks like being on the wrong side of 60, is actually a spokesperson for 25 & 35 somethings. Part Connery-part Brosnan, a blogger described him thus: he would make the lovechild of James Bond and Hugh Hefner look like a complete douche.

The campaign won a Gold at the 2009 Effie Awards. It won an Effies Gold for effectiveness in 2013 too. The case study commentary said: 

We realized beer advertising typically insults the intelligence of drinkers, and this presented an opportunity: to be interesting, rather than infantile. The Most Interesting Man in the World was born, and with him an integrated campaign that helped Dos Equis increase trial and drive healthy double-digit growth during widespread category decline, all while firmly ingraining Dos Equis in popular culture. 

But I guess the team felt that the character was taking centre stage and in late 2016, the lead actor was sent on a one-way mission to Mars. He was replaced with a younger actor (in an attempt to attract the youth, I am guessing) but it didn’t work.  According to an AdAge report (behind a paywall) Heineken USA marketing VP Alison Payne told in a recent interview: “We created a legend, but Dos Equis … was gradually being forgotten.”  

In 2017, the agency (which became Havas by then) was sacked from the account and Droga5, an agency renowned for its creative prowess was appointed. They shelved the advertising character and created the ‘Keep It Interesante’ campaign which obliquely referred to the brand’s roots. It was later tweaked to ‘interesting beer for interesting times’  in a bid to have some link to the earlier campaign. Now, just three years later the account has shifted again, to Sid Lee

To me it appears that there are two problems: defining what the central proposition of the brand is (what it stands for) and creating something which is way better than ‘the most interesting man in the world’ but still keeps the product centerstage. I am not sure how changing ad agencies will ensure that the fundamental problem is addressed. 

Advertising characters vs brand mascots

In my mind, a brand mascot is a creation which is not dependant on an actor or model. An advertising character is a regular model but who has a sharply defined personality and has dependencies on the ‘talent’. Over the years, brands mascots have lasted (some for decades) while advertising characters (which are anyway few and far between) have faded. Typically, an advertising character is introduced in an ad or campaign and if there’s traction, extended for a period of time. Among the famous ones I can recall:

The British Telecom ‘mum’: in the 1980s, Maureen Lipman played the role of a Jewish grandmother, Beatrice Bellman – shortened as Beatie (BT being the brand name, get it?). The telecom brand encouraged people to talk (remember this was before sending birthday wished over WhatsApp) and her chatty character calling up family and friends was endearing. The most famous advert was ‘Ology’ where she speaks to her grandson who hasn’t done well in his exams. 

She became quite famous and even had a book on the campaign.

Relying on the actor to deliver the goods forever is unrealistic. Actors age, don’t look the character, pass away and so on. In the late 80s (or maybe early 90s), Trikaya Advertising created a campaign for Aristocrat luggage which intended to dramatise its sturdiness. They created  a ‘coolie’ as a spokesperson, played by actor Harish Patel  who went on to speak about the suitcase’s features. But the actor could not be used in subsequent campaigns as he had gained weight. Recently, Voltas air conditioners created ‘Mr. Murthy’ to highlight its all-weather cooling. The premise of a character having to live in different parts of India and his AC adjusting to local weather was interesting. But then again, it cannot be sustained for decades like a mascot like Ronald McDonald or Amul girl can. 




Saw ad, did not recall brand

Yes, consumers being unable to recall the brand after watching an ad or misattributing it to a competitor is a serious problem for marketers. To that end they could not have ignored the fact that the character was getting more popular than the brand. In the world of celebrity advertising it is common – we vaguely recall the celebrity but forget which brand it was for. Brands resort to tactics to overcome such problem: place the  logo on the screen from the first frame itself (assuming that would solve the problem), have the brand name repeated many times over, reject scripts that do not introduce the brand within the 6th second of a 30-second ad and so on. 

In the absence of a truly differentiating product feature (which is a rarity in most cases), marketers rely on advertising to create distinctiveness and brand preference. However, from what I recall of my ad agency days, I am not sure if agencies are given that freedom to do so. There are several constraints at play – some created by the agency process and some from the client side. Lack of clarity on the intent (‘give us something like <insert current popular campaign>’), message, layered approval process, unreasonable turnaround times and rejection of ideas without specific reason (‘it lacks punch’) leading to several iterations. But I digress. 

In the rare instance of a clutter-breaking creative idea, as in Dos Equis, maybe the core team needed to forward plan for a transition to a non-Goldsmith world. Of course it is easy to speculate on what they should have done, in hindsight, without being actually involved. But gut says just casting a younger protagonist wasn’t the best option. 

The Dos Equis campaign would have had to tackle the problem of what to do with the central character sooner or later as they cannot have Jonathan Goldsmith be the face of the brand forever. They had also identified the problem of people recalling the character more than the brand. I don’t have a specific solution but I thought there was potential in the ‘be interesting’ space as attempted in ‘Interesante’. In any case, while I wish the new agency all the best, its a pity that the industry thinks switching agencies every 2-3 years is the fix for effective advertising. 

Are there any successful advertising characters that you have found to be effective? What options did Dos Equis have? Do share your views.