BUDDY LEE BITES THE BULLET
Byline: Scott Malone
MERRIAM, Kan. — The Lee Co. expects rather a lot out of its diminutive spokesdoll.
The 80-year-old Buddy Lee character has become popular among consumers in the two years since the jeansmaker reintroduced him into its Lee Dungarees advertising campaigns. The company said it even gets e-mail for him, which has included marriage proposals and an offer for personal training.
Capitalizing on this popularity, the company will again be featuring the character in its fall ad campaign, a series of radio and television ads called “The Buddy Lee” challenge.
As reported, the challenge centers on three characters: the destructive Roy, disc jockey Super Greg and motor racer Curry.
This week, the three characters begin showing up in radio ads being aired in Atlanta; Austin, Tex.; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; New York; Raleigh, N.C.; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C., said Kathy Collins, Lee vice president of marketing communications, in an interview this week at the company’s headquarters here.
The ads were produced by the creative team known as the “Jerky Boys,” who earned their notoriety in the early Nineties for audio tapes of phone conversations in which they confused — and sometimes tormented — unsuspecting people.
In the 30-second radio spots, two of the three challengers call employees of Lee — whom, Collins said, were unaware they were going to be called — to announce that they wanted to take a piece out of Buddy Lee.
The one character not to call a Lee employee was Roy, who instead calls a confused-sounding hospital supply company employee, demanding a stretcher for “a little guy” weighing about two or three pounds, whom he intended to pound. The unidentified recipient of the call laughs.
Lee employees were predictably more defensive of their spokesdoll. In response to an insult of the character by challenger Super Greg, the employee on the phone — who again was not identified — responded, “I don’t think you need to be calling him a jackass.”
Collins said there were a number of amusing employee responses in the 10 1/2 hours of tape the producers gathered to develop the commercials.
The radio spots will be followed by a television campaign, starting next week. Ads are to be shown on cable channels MTV, ESPN, ESPN2 and BET, followed by prime-time network advertising on Sunday and Monday Night Football in September.
The TV spots show the three challenges unfolding.
In one spot, Buddy and Curry set off on a go-cart race. Curry wins the race after shoving Buddy’s cart, sending it into a flip, but the spokesdoll succeeds in making off with the attractive woman refereeing the race.
Super Greg challenges the spokesdoll to a disc jockey “scratch-off,” which Buddy wins by sticking a fork into a tank containing an electric eel, setting off a spasm of scratching.
Roy, played by John Randle, the 287-pound Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle, endeavors to smash Buddy, who repeatedly manages not to be in the way of his opponent’s charges.
Collins said that continuing with the Buddy Lee character was a natural move for the company, given his popularity.
“When you get that kind of momentum,” she said, “you want to keep it going.”
But the company also wanted to ensure that the campaign spotlighted some of Lee’s more fashionable products, of which consumers might not be aware.
“We needed to make them understand that Lee denim is more than basic five-pocket jeans,” she said.
Each commercial will end with a brief flash of more fashionable items from Lee’s line, including flares and “painter” jeans with the utility loop of a carpenter cut, but narrower legs.
The opening and closing shots of the TV ads have a feel similar to the opening credits of a video game, and it’s an intentional look. The company’s trying to drive consumers to its buddylee.com Web site, where next week it will be introducing online games powered by Shockwave software, allowing consumers to try their hand at the challenge.
The games will have a look reminiscent of the arcade and Atari-style video games of the Eighties, Collins said. If the games prove popular, they could keep consumers on Lee’s Web site and in front of its marketing imagery for minutes at a time.
Collins described the games as “continuing the relationship.” In addition, they are designed to drive consumers into stores. To advance to higher levels of play, they will have to enter style numbers from Lee Dungarees products. That should also help the company measure how effective the games promotion is, noted Gordon Harton, president.
“We’ll be able to determine how successful all this is by seeing if the numbers come back,” he said.
Harton noted that Lee has learned the importance of tracking the results of ad campaigns.
Prior to introducing the Buddy Lee spots, Lee’s ads included romantic vignettes, showing teens in laundry mats or on boats. While the ads themselves were noticed by consumers, Harton explained, few realized that they were Lee Co. ads.
In fact, surveys at the time showed that only 18 percent of consumers who remembered the ads associated them with the Lee brand, he noted. While romance was appealing, he continued, “That’s not the essence of the brand.”
He pointed out that, in contrast, 67 percent of people surveyed associate the Buddy Lee ads with the Lee brand. Lee executives added that they think it’s particularly important for them to be developing exciting campaigns, given the current doldrums of the moderate market in which it plays.
“The moderate environment has not been as healthy as we would like it to be, and you have to keep them interested in coming into the store.”
While the TV ads are due to break next week, versions previewed Monday were described as still being finalized.
Harton said last-minute fine-tuning was something that Lee as a company had embraced in both its marketing and in its apparel design, and described that as necessary to keep up with rapidly changing consumer tastes.
In years past, he said, the company would have wrapped up its fall ads by January. But the company felt it was important to have a clear sense of what styles were likely to be strong for fall before putting any clothes on television.
Similarly, the company is working closer to market on its apparel collections. It didn’t finish its holiday groups until mid-June, and won’t nail down the final details on spring until Aug. 1.
This has required the company to work faster on product development, he explained.
“A lot of it is just going through every piece of the process, from how do you handle the samples to how do you work with the denim mills,” Harton said.
As for fall, Harton said he expected Lee’s women’s jeans sales to rise, partly as a result in what he described as a “huge increase” in the amount of retail space dedicated to them.
On Tuesday Lee parent VF Corp., reporting a 1.5 percent increase in second-quarter net income despite a 1 percent decline in sales, said it had seen “solid increases” in sales at Lee. (See related story, page 9.)
Lee will also be incorporating some TV ads into its fall campaign for the Riveted by Lee brand. As previously reported, the campaign is called “Conversations With a Mirror,” and shows self-confident women talking with their mirrors.
One of the 15-second spots shows a woman brushing her hair before going out, with a man in the background. The mirror asks, “Who’s that?” and the woman responds “Mike.” The mirror then asks “What happened to Dan?” to which the woman responds “Mike.”
The company plans more than 50 TV spots, clustered around the Emmy awards. In addition, it will be running a print version of the campaign in People, InStyle, Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, Marie Claire, Self, O, Glamour and Mode.”
Lee executives declined to say what this year’s advertising budget is, only noting that they’ll be spending equally on the Lee Dungarees and Riveted by Lee brands. They did note that their overall budget is in line with last year’s.
According to Competitive Media Reporting, in 1999 Lee spent $10.1 million on media buys. That includes advertising space, but not production costs.