Improvisational Food Marketing: Lessons from Jonathan Winters

I first met Jonathan Winters in a local cigar store that is owned by a pal of mine.

Mr. Winters was the only customer in the shop one day when I walked in. A bit of small talk ensued, during which Jonathan asked me where I was from. When I replied that I grew up in Ohio, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a round, brown nut. “Oh really?” he responded, “Then tell me what this is.” Lots of people would probably identify that nut as a Chestnut, and they’d almost be correct. But I properly identified it as a Buckeye, common in Ohio and a well-known part of the state’s image.

I later learned that Jonathan was also from Ohio, and that he frequently used his Buckeye as a litmus test to determine if someone was really from that state or just pretending for his benefit.

Single Buckeye - Food Advertising EvansHardy+YoungWith my Ohio credentials established, Jonathan warmed up to me, and launched into a 30-minute improvised performance that revolved around a dim-witted, back-country woman (presumably from Ohio) who was visited by extraterrestrials while hanging her laundry on the clothes line. It was a hilarious performance for an audience of one, all conceived on the spot, and a powerful demonstration of Jonathan’s unique comedic genius.

Thus began a friendship (and later a business relationship), that was one of the great privileges of my life and some of the most fun I have ever had.

Shortly after meeting Jonathan, one of our ad agency’s clients, the California Egg Commission, went into review. As the incumbent, we knew our agency was definitely the underdog, with dim prospects for keeping the account. To make matters worse, some of the hottest agencies in Southern California were participating in the pitch, so the competition was going to be formidable.

And the client’s business situation was far from optimal, as the entire nation was mired in a decade-long downward slide in egg consumption.

But we had an idea…

We knew from research that eggs were ubiquitous – a staple in just about every refrigerator in America. But they were so commonplace as to be almost invisible to consumers. Kind of like wallpaper that is present on the walls but never really examined. The bottom line was that people simply did not stop to think about all of the ways they could enjoy eggs, nor did they consider all of the important nutritional qualities that eggs possess. So how could we take the very commonplace egg and inject it with new levels of consumer interest?

Which led us to an inspired moment. Why not use Jonathan Winters as our commercial spokesperson? After all, he had made a career out of taking common everyday items and re-imagining them in unexpected, hilarious ways. Dating back to the early days of The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and later with Johnny Carson, Jonathan had created an entirely new kind of comedy – that relied on his quick mind and inventiveness to make comedy out of commonplace situations.

We knew that asking Jonathan to deliver a scripted message would kill his spontaneity and lose the consumer engagement that we were seeking. The only way to capture Jonathan’s genius was to let him do what he does best – improvisational humor. That meant shooting the commercials with no script.

Agency Partner and Chief Creative Officer Scott Young devised an inspired creative approach that would allow Jonathan to just “riff” about eggs at the TV shoot, but still ensured we’d have great content that fit the constraints of a 30-second commercial. But even with Scott’s great idea, we’d still need to shoot the commercials without a script – not the easiest thing to convince a client to do.

There was really only one way that had even the slimmest chance of persuading our client to keep our firm as their Agency of Record and approve our crazy idea of producing multiple TV commercials without any scripts that they could approve in advance.

We knew that we had to have Jonathan present at our client presentation, so that our client could witness in person how his amazing improvisational skills could not only hook and hold an audience, but also leave a lasting positive impression about a brand. Talking about Jonathan was one thing. Witnessing his genius in person (like I had in the cigar store), was another thing entirely.

After substantial financial negotiations with Jonathan’s agent, an agreement was struck, and we were on our way.

On the big day of our presentation, the agency started with a general review of the potential strengths of a celebrity spokesperson. This was followed by a lengthy review of our “mystery spokesperson’s” many professional accomplishments, including hit comedy albums, TV shows, Showtime specials, Emmy Awards, etc., all without identifying Jonathan by name. After this well-orchestrated build-up, we finally revealed a six-foot tall photo of Jonathan and announced that the person we were recommending was indeed Jonathan Winters.

At precisely that moment, Jonathan burst through the back door of the meeting room. He immediately grabbed a basket of muffins that was on the snack table, and began a rapid-fire assault through a variety of characters, voices, and ridiculous situations. From the front of the room, I watched as the Egg Commission’s members went from confusion to surprise to recognition to hilarity, all in a matter of seconds. By the time Jonathan reached the front of the room the Commissioners were in cataclysmic laughter and having the time of their lives.

Jonathan continued to just kill it for several more minutes, and then, as previously arranged, he exited as quickly as he had arrived.

As the Board members wiped tears of laughter from their eyes, I said, “That is exactly what we are going to capture in our TV commercials for you.”

The vote was called, all hands shot up in approval, and we retained the account by unanimous consent. A few days later, I received a congratulatory call from the President of a competing agency – he couldn’t believe we actually pulled it off.

An Unqualified Successful Food Campaign

Several weeks later, after a tremendous amount of advance planning to ensure we’d get usable content, our unscripted commercials were shot. The campaign was an unqualified success.  Consumer recall of the California Egg Commission’s key copy points achieved an all-time high.  Most notably of all, egg consumption went up in California while it continued to decline in the rest of the U.S. We won an EFFIE award (among many others), for one of the most creative and effective campaigns in America.

Mr. Winters was an authentic genius at connecting disparate things in an unexpected way. In a small way, our agency also demonstrated the same thing – connecting a brief social encounter with an inspired idea for a successful branding campaign.

As food marketers, there is a lesson for all of us in this experience. Don’t get discouraged when big obstacles are placed in your way. Don’t be afraid to go outside the bounds of the predictable. Challenge yourself to connect the dots in unexpected ways. Be inventive and consider all the possibilities – even the wacky ones. You just might hit a home run in ways you never expected.

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Dennis Hardy President CEO EvansHardy+Young
Dennis Hardy, President / CEO

In the over 30 years since co-founding EvansHardy+Young, Dennis has led teams serving accounts as diverse as California Walnuts, Chumash Casino Resort, Idaho Potatoes, California Raisins, Hughes Markets and several restaurant chains. He is also our resident beekeeper and closely monitors the agency’s rooftop hives.