The man, the stick, the legend; Behind the legacy of Pak’nSave’s Stickman

We’re all familiar with the Kiwi icon known to us as Stickman. The stick character has solidified itself within our society over the past 11 years, showing impressive longevity for something so simple. Courtney Devereux sat down with Pak’nSave’s head of marketing, Kamran Kazalbash, to talk through the legacy of the mascot and why building brand awareness is a long-term game.

He’s instantly recognisable, thick black lines against a yellow background are all Kiwis need to know they’re about to hear the very distinctive voice of Paul Ego. Pak’nSave’s Stickman was created (birthed?) in 2008 by FCB, yet he hasn’t aged a day and has been portraying Pak’nSave’s low-cost values in many different ways over the past 11 years.

Kamran Kazalbash is the head of marketing for Pak’nSave, and although he wasn’t there for the creation of Stickman, he has been his guardian since 2011, seeing him through a lot of external pressures, market hardships and a change in consumer behaviour.

“The genius is the strategy of Stickman hasn’t changed,” he says. “Although that doesn’t sound overly impressive, if you look at New Zealand over the last decade, we’ve been through a great financial crisis, we’ve seen Woolworths Australia consolidate the likes of Woolworths and Foodtown and Countdown all into one banner, so we’ve had a lot of competition and a lot of external factors against us. But despite these things we’ve done a good job of holding true to the strategy.”

Kamran Kazalbash

Stickman has remained the same over the last decade in terms of style production and values. Kazalbash sees this consistency as the reason the mascot’s popularity has only increased over recent years.

“Everyone that has been involved with Stickman should be proud. It’s been the same agency, the same strategy, the same execution, but in that time, there have been many different people that have worked on it.

“Despite all of those different people, it’s still held true. As marketers, there is always the temptation in a new role to make your mark, but with Pak’nSave, it was very much about recognising this incredible platform, and just nurturing and growing it. It’s almost like you’re the guardian of Stickman until you leave, and he changes hands to someone else.”

He admits that keeping the strategy has worked well for them, going against the retail category which often burns through advertising if campaigns aren’t instantly successful.

“Particularly retail has a habit of saying ‘well that didn’t work, change it’ and they shouldn’t. I’m a big fan of the saying ‘brands wear in, not out’.”

In fact, the Pak’nSave marketing team often back their money-saving ethos by reusing old ads, to which Kazalbash says is an important move against ‘disposable advertising’.

“The thing New Zealand is waking up to is that we have to move away from this disposable advertising. People make something, look at it for a month, and if it didn’t have an effect they get rid of it and make something else. It’s not cost-effective and it doesn’t allow your customer to engage with the brand. We often reuse our Pak’nSave ads, we’ve recently re-aired one from seven years ago. It’s still relevant, and it’s just another way we can demonstrate that we’re still saving costs and delivering those back to the customers.”

Despite existing in the FMCG category which has the word ‘fast’ in the title, Kazalbash says marketers and brands shouldn’t be trying to switch up strategies too quickly.

“We’ve all got an opportunity now with all the work that’s being done around the science of marketing’s effectiveness to actually slow down a bit and give things time to breathe. No one’s going to see a huge lift in sales after releasing a brand campaign, nor should we expect to. What we should expect is steady constant growth. But to see that you have to step back and let things breathe.”

Pak’nSave is a great example of growing a brand over time. The chain solidified itself as to best option during the great financial crisis of 2008, but now has remained in the front of minds for the budget-conscious consumers.

“I joined during the GFC, and everyone at that time was feeling the belt tighten, which I think played into Pak’nSave’s hand a little bit,” says Kazalbash.

“Those customers who were in the middle ground looking for savings leaned towards us. However, ten years on, I think now the same people are being praised for shopping with us because it is a savvy option for saving money. We’ve also done a good job at reinforcing the brand towards people who may not have shopped with us before, and we’re seeing that with the younger shoppers heading towards us.”

Although the consumer landscape may have evolved, Stickman has remained a soothing, Paul Ego-voiced constant in the advertising space. Kazalbash says Ego’s voice was switched from being the narrator to the Stickman in the first few years to help drive the brand and allow for more options of taking campaigns across different channels.

“Paul Ego has been the voice since day one,” says Kazalbash. “Yet in year three or four we had a conversation about the growth of Stickman. We said we needed an evolution, someone needs to give him his own personality, he essentially needs to become a Kiwi. When he started talking it allowed us to move to different channels. Over time he grew and became this cultural icon.”

“Paul Ego is a huge amount of fun to work with,” says Kazalbash. “He’s done some amazing work in his past, but he said to me when he’s walking, people will drive past and just yell ‘Stickman!’ at him out of the window.”

TVCs are the main play for Pak’nSave, as it is for most mass-brand supermarkets, yet Kazalbash says that radio is a great budget-friendly way to reach audiences, and now digital is in the mix as the new online-focused generation of shoppers comes in.

“We very much subscribe to this 60:40 model. 60 percent of our focus will always be about maintaining and growing our brand. When we want to talk about the brand, we use our mass channels, so TV, radio and print. When we talk about that other 40 percent, it’s focused on retail activity, so more about that call to action so it’s going to be very targeted using algorithms through digital. For us, it’s about maintaining the balance.”

There are a few brands that have done really well to build long-term sustained platforms. If you have a strong strategy, all you have to do is make sure it stays relevant, topical and interesting, which Kazalbash says is important when making a Stickman narrative.

“We work really closely with FCB, and together we make sure we’re in the New Zealand cultural landscape and keeping up with what is going on. We tend to stay away from anything political or religious, but we try and keep up with other cultural movements.”

Kazalbash says the legacy of Stickman has stayed true to its original plan of showcasing the brand as low cost. The budget-friendly ads are a way to show cost-savings will go back to the consumer.

“In the market, it’s always going to be the brands that differentiate us. No matter what channels we use it will always come down to growing our brand presence, then once we’ve got that brand equity, we will use that to amplify our sales activity.”

Stickman is well-tuned to the society around him, from weighing into the flag referendum to cheeky references to the latest Rugby World Cup, having such a long-term mascot means a lot of work to keep him relevant says Kazalbash.

“As part of our brand make up, we always want to be edgy, and as close to the line as possible… One thing we’ll always try to be is pretty close to the bone, when we don’t have the budgets of our competitors, we have to do something that amplifies our spend, and one of those things is to be distinctive to get that cut through.

“It’s a great example of a brand that’s wearing in and not wearing out. I think it’s our job, and challenge as marketers, that we have to keep him topical, relevant and entertaining. If it gets to a point where he’s lacking on that and we need to go a different way, I’ll hand in my notice and someone else can take over from there.”

However, Stickman has proved this year that he is as relevant, topical and entertaining as ever, this October FCB won its very first award for their Pak’nSave Stickman at the Effies, taking home the Grand Effie for their work.

The Pak’nSave and FCB team at the 2019 Effie’s Award Night.

Andrew Geoghegan, global head of consumer planning for Diageo in the UK and this year’s international Effie judge, wondered if a decision on a winner had ever been reached so quickly, reported StopPress back in October.

“The judges unanimously awarded Pak’nSave’s Stickman the Grand Effie. This is deceptively sophisticated work – the creative means and message are so well integrated they deliver the campaign’s intent in every touchpoint efficiently and effectively. Tapping into culture drives everyday relevance and that competitive brand truth about being a real NZ brand. Most of all they have stuck with and evolved work over the years and have impressive results in a tough category.”

As well as the Grand Effie, Stickman also received a gold in the Sustained Success category which Kazalbash says, was about time.

“Up until then, it had never won a single Effie, which I thought was really odd. We’ve been consistently chugging away in the background. Although we’ve been clever in sticking with our strategy, judges want something new and shiny, they want to see a graph that is flat until the campaign, then it spikes dramatically. Now, the groundswell and the science are allowing us to look at what effective work actually is, and it isn’t big spikes, it’s slow steady growth.”

It’s clear that Pak’nSave and FCB have created a cultural icon together, so much so that Kazalbash and his team receive letters from caring fans regarding the possible future milestones of Stickman.

“We get a lot of comments from customers asking when Stickman is going to get married, or when is he going to have children. We are very mindful that as soon as we do something like that, we put an age on him. At the moment he has a snowman cousin, but he doesn’t have any other family and I don’t think we’d ever do something that ages him, because that means we’d be moving him upwards which is the first step of moving him out.”

So, what happens when it is time to move past such a strong icon? Will there ever be a natural phase-out of Stickman, or will he go the way of the Life Direct Sloth? Kazalbash says that isn’t a reality he ever wants to think will happen.

“I don’t foresee a situation at this point of time where we would ever have to look at moving past Stickman. We do a reasonable amount of research to make sure customers are still finding him funny and entertaining and he’s slightly more popular now than he was ten years ago.”

Kazalbash says that Stickman was “a golden idea”, one that has increased brand recognition and communicated their low-cost values perfectly over the 11 years.

“If we get it right, Stickman is essentially a Kiwi cultural icon,” he says. “As long as we keep him Kiwi and we evolve him as New Zealand evolves over time, he’ll always be relevant. He’s the perfect embodiment of low cost, no frills, with a down to earth Kiwi sense of humour. As long as we don’t deviate from that creative expression, I don’t foresee a situation where we’re going to even think of moving on, it would be a very sad day if that ever happened.”

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