Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

28 August 2009

I Admit It, I Am Cookie Bear’s Father

Advertisements rarely become monuments. Today’s newspaper publicity is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. But while little is remembered, every now and then something lasts a bit longer. One of those putative ‘iconic’ stand outs is Hudsons’ Cookie Bear.

I admit it, I am the father of Cookie Bear; I invented him. What fame!

Cadbury took over the Hudson company - a New Zealand biscuit and chocolate manufacturer - in the early 1930s. They inherited the Hudson biscuit brand, a well-known and well-established household standard.
In the early nineteen-seventies Carlton-Carruthers du Chateau Ltd., the advertising agency of which I was a proprietor, conceived the idea of Cookie Bear for Cadbury Schweppes Hudson.

Cookie Bear started life when I suggested to our creative people that we develop him as a campaign character in television advertising. (At the time there was a mendicant bear character in the Andy Williams show that triggered the idea). He was positioned as a lover of biscuits who considered Hudsons to be best. The first two commercials were in black and white, which was just as well because CB was dressed in a green bear outfit borrowed from a fair ground performer in Lower Hutt.

With his deep ‘dum-de-do’ voice and cuddly personality he immediately had a big impact on the market. Children loved him and so did their mums. In fact, market research told us that the only people who thought he was a nonentity were intellectual snobs and teenagers (who almost by definition eschew anything to do with the establishment). In quite a short space of time, Cookie Bear started to adopt the characteristics of a brand in its own right. We found that brand awareness studies where the question was: ‘What brands of biscuits can you name?’ were producing, among others, the unprompted response ‘Cookie Bear’ from a significant number of respondents.

We decided, I consider rightly, in the early days of Cookie Bear, that Hudsons should continue to be the brand and that Cookie Bear should be the vehicle for the transfer of desirable images associated with that brand. Because he was so powerful a character, we put him on the biscuit packs and very carefully arranged it so that Cookie Bear was seen to be inextricably bound up with the Hudsons big blue ‘H’ without overpowering it.
Although it was acknowledged by all of the marketing department and management at Cadbury Schweppes Hudson that Cookie Bear was doing a great job for them there was only ever one person at Cadburys who made the full, long-term commitment to the character that I hoped for. That man was Mike Groves who subsequently left Cadbury and is today Director of Operations in the Graduate School of Enterprise at Auckland University.

Mike Groves and I firmly believed that Cookie Bear, as a near-brand could be as important to Cadburys and Hudson as, say, the Jolly Green Giant, and could easily achieve brand status if Cadburys were prepared to allow him to do so. We felt, though, that Cookie Bear would only really come into his full value when the children of the day had grown to parenthood. We believed that the brands you grow up with are an important part of life’s experience and are likely to be passed on to the next generation with the usual transmitted tribal folklore. If you like, there’s a sort of whakapapa of brands to be trusted which the elders are prepared to pass on.

The foundation for Cookie Bear’s long term success was laid through Cookie Bear’s Club which communicated through a monthly page in Woman’s Weekly and a correspondence which was conducted by Cookie Bear with children all over New Zealand who wrote to him. Many of the children poured out their innermost secrets that were answered with great compassion by Cookie Bear who was, in actual fact, an internal bureau at Cadburys in Dunedin which, at its height, employed four women full time handling daily sacks of mail.

Cookie Bear’s club was open to any child aged below twelve and each one of them received a birthday card from CB. We got to a peak of 180 000 children; one in four of all the children under twelve in New Zealand belonged to Cookie Bear’s Club. Mike Groves and I believed that the full fruits of Cookie Bear could have been plucked about ten years later when the girls who were twelve, would then be twenty-two - some of them mothers. That’s when the brand they’d grown up with would have started to be passed on to their children.
It is sad to record that others in the Cadbury organization - especially incoming brand managers - did not have our faith, foresight or dedication and the wave of success was allowed to dissipate.
The excuses were quite rational and pragmatic - postage rates increased from, I think, about seven cents a letter to twenty; to mail every member once a year cost $36,000 (a lot of money in the 70s), and then there was the cost of the wages of the ladies in the bureau etc; and his role was increasingly relegated to the odd advertisement.

Beside being a TV, radio, print advertising character, Cookie Bear was the subject of a children’s book written, drawn and published under licence to Cadbury; he was also licensed to a soft toy manufacturer and was subject of a court case for breach of copyright; and when Cadburys treasured the character most they formally asked my company to transfer legal copyright to them so that there should not be any misunderstandings about ownership, even though, in our opinion, they were always the copyright owner.

Mike Groves once referred to CB as ‘the million dollar bear’. Sometimes, in the old days, when we sat around discussing the future antics of Cookie Bear a part of my mind would detach itself, drift up to the ceiling, and look down on this bunch of highly paid adults talking about what appeared to be kid’s stuff and boggled at the apparent banality of it all.

‘Why’ I asked myself, ‘is this all taken so seriously?’ The answer was, of course, money. Perhaps the greatest irony of all that money earned and spent was that eventually the brand Hudson and the character Cookie Bear became the property of Griffins, whose market share Hudson were always trying to steal.
But Cookie Bear has survived for over thirty-five years and although he’s changed considerably since his beginnings he still appears on some of Griffins’ biscuit packs and, very occasionally, in advertisements.



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By Don Donovan