A popular brand character conceived in the Age of Aquarius is being reimagined for the age of social media.
The character is Morris, the finicky cat that has represented the 9Lives brand of cat food since his creation in 1969 by the Leo Burnett agency. Morris has represented 9Lives through eight presidential administrations, more than 40 Super Bowls and three marketers of 9Lives (H.J. Heinz, Del Monte Foods and, as of March, Big Heart Pet Brands).
Several agencies are involved in the restaging of Morris, which began this month. The goal is to present the pitchbeast as a millennial mascot who is “charmingly choosy” rather than finicky, which according to research has negative connotations that could turn off potential customers.
In the new campaign, Morris demonstrates his credentials as a 21st century brand character by adopting and commenting on Internet memes, trying out wearable technology and offering his approval of things going on in the world by declaring them “Morris approved.” Because so many cats are already kings and queens of online content, it may not be too much of a stretch to imagine posts in social media from Morris.
The fashioning of a new persona for Morris is being presented as a “reboot,” as if he were a Hollywood franchise character like Batman, James Bond or Spider-Man. This is not the first time that Morris has been brought back or refocused; for instance, when he reappeared in television advertising in 2004 he was rendered less finicky, willing to turn somersaults for a steady supply of 9Lives.
This return of Morris comes as Madison Avenue embraces a trend known as comfort marketing, which has been popular in the years since the financial crisis of 2008. The idea of reviving elements of vintage pitches like spokescharacters, jingles, slogans and celebrity endorsers is to stimulate positive memories of the past when the present seems uncertain.
At the same time, to counter consumer concerns that a brand is wallowing in the past and has not been kept up-to-date, comfort marketing includes giving the ads contemporary appeal as well as, in many instances, the products.
For example, as Morris returns, Big Heart is introducing a variety of 9Lives called 9Lives Lean & Tasty, an entry into the booming category of healthier pet-food products. The increased focus on pet health, and the willingness among consumers to spend more on foods deemed healthier, are among reasons that, according to the research firm Packaged Facts, sales of pet food in the United States will increase 16 percent between 2015 and 2018, reaching $33 billion.
The budget for the campaign is estimated at $2 million. The agencies working on the campaign are: Evolution Bureau, also known as EVB, for digital tasks; FCB, for advertising; PR Hacker, for social media and public relations; Starcom, for media buying; and VaynerMedia, for community management on Facebook.
Although Morris is “a powerful, beloved character,” says Carrie Schliemann, business director for cat food and snacks at Big Heart in San Francisco, he has not had a strong presence for a while — or, as she puts it, “He’s probably taken some catnaps recently.”
In doing research among consumers, “it was fascinating to find the latent equity” of the 9Lives brand and Morris, Ms. Schliemann says.
“Older consumers loved him,” she adds, and “his personality resonated” among younger consumers.
And because “cats rule the Internet right now,” Ms. Schliemann says, “it was the perfect time to bring back the original celebrity cat — but in a way that’s culturally relevant” and reflects how “consumers are online and on smartphones and tablets.”
“Our model was Hollywood, the franchise reboot,” she adds, and whereas the original Morris “was finicky and maybe slightly negative, the updated Morris we like to call ‘charmingly choosy.'”
“He stands for everyday pleasures,” Ms. Schliemann says, “whether it’s eating 9Lives cat food or tweeting about Taylor Swift.”
But several essential elements of the character have been kept, she adds, especially “his roots as a shelter cat” and how his rise from rescued feline to star is “an American success story.” A marketing program last year, called Morris’s Rescue Watch, was focused on helping shelter cats get adopted.
The campaign is planned to unfold “like a TV series,” Ms. Schliemann says, with “story arcs” that have a beginning, middle and end. For instance, when Morris encounters wearable technology in the “cat’s eye view” part of the campaign, “he’s initially skeptical but he ends up embracing it,” she adds.
Patrick Maravilla, group creative director at EVB in San Francisco, says that “every single piece of content is designed to be shareable” so the campaign can “engage consumers more than a 30-second TV commercial could.”
“There are multiple levels of engagement for as deep down the rabbit hole as users want to go,” he adds.
Those who are eager to follow a cat down a rabbit hole will be rewarded with “Easter eggs” on the website, Mr. Maravilla says, using the term for online surprises.
Although he does not want to spoil too many of those surprises, he offers this: “When Morris is looking at the fishbowl, if you click on the fishbowl it plays a 1980s 9Lives commercial with Morris and a fishbowl.”
And while visitors to the 9Lives website can print a discount coupon, there will also be “one very high-value coupon that we’re hiding,” Mr. Maravilla teases, meant to “add to the talk value” of the campaign.
“Cats are the social currency of the Internet,” he adds, and 9Lives wants to provide consumers with “something more progressive” than the typical online feline fare.
Ben Kaplan, chief executive of PR Hacker, also based in San Francisco, says that his agency and the others are trying to “engage with people today” while still “being rooted in” the origins of Morris, whom he calls a “beloved character.”
Although the content for the campaign is scripted, he adds, efforts are being made to be “super-relevant” and reflect what generates conversations in social media.
That does not necessarily mean, however, that Morris will be posting all the time on whatever happens to be trending on Twitter or other social media platforms, Mr. Kaplan says.
There is a “difference between story lines and random posts,” he adds, and brands that “want to push buttons to get attention” will find that strategy has diminishing returns.
Ms. Schliemann agrees. Morris is “charmingly choosy,” she says, “so he’s going to comment on what he wants to comment on” rather than on virtually anything being discussed online.
If you like In Advertising, be sure to read the Advertising column that appears Monday through Friday in the Business Day section of The New York Times print edition and on nytimes.com.
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