Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
At most QSR chains, drinking a beverage entails filling up a cup with a fountain soda or the odd iced tea and lemonade. Almost always, this decision means selecting from a menu provided by one of two soft-drink behemoths. Yet even as consumers increasingly seek out more organic, better-for-you options on their plates, they haven't had the same choices for their glasses.
Tractor Beverage Company has worked to change that since its founding in 2014. The first and only certified organic, non-GMO full-line beverage solution for foodservice, Tractor provides its line of refreshers, lemonades and craft sodas to nearly 6,000 locations — including Chipotle, PLNT Burger and Kevin Hart’s Hart House — across the U.S.
But making inroads in foodservice has not been easy, especially with most chains locked into long-term contracts with either Coca-Cola or PepsiCo. To do so, Tractor decided to take its message directly to consumers with its first ad campaign.
"No companies have really challenged the monoliths of Big Red and Big Blue in foodservice, and not many companies have endeavored to create a consumer brand from a foodservice footprint," said Tractor's Chief Brand Officer Justin Herber. "We needed to … really create a consumer story and a breakthrough if we're going to create a resonant brand."
For its pursuit, Tractor enlisted Progress Studios, a new agency created with progressive challenger brands in mind, to craft a campaign that launched July 10 with a national presence across connected TV, digital streaming, cinema and out-of-home.
Central to the effort is "Escape the Ordinary," a hand-drawn hero spot that follows an anthropomorphic cup of ice that dreams of fertile fields and fresh ingredients but is limited to four neon-colored soft drinks — Burpz Mega, Zoink'd, Joy Joy Lite and Exxxtra Swole — belonging to Glugopoly, a fictional company with taglines "The only choice" and "Don't think, just drink!" The 90-second ad follows the cup of ice as it makes its way through a dystopian assembly line but is able to escape its fountain fate by throwing a mint in a Burpz cola and riding the bottle through the smoggy skies to the farmland utopia of its fantasies.
For Tractor, "Escape the Ordinary" is the culmination of a strategy crafted around connecting with its target consumers — the people who get a water cup at a restaurant or reach for kombucha at a retail location — but with the type of "lightning strike moment" that it requires as a small company without the big ad budget of its competitors.
As Herber put it: "How are we really going to create work that articulates our value proposition and what we're up against as a small brand trying to break through in an industry that's dominated by monolithic forces? How do we get people to understand that and how do we get people to care about that?"
A hero's — and consumer's — journey
An analysis of Tractor's target consumers focused on people with a pre-industrial food ideology who avoid over-processed foods and seek out organic options. These folks are also dubious about institutional thinking and don't like being spun by big companies in the form of greenwashing. To connect with these consumers, Tractor and Progress Studios opted for a narrative-driven ad that follows a traditional three-act hero's journey and looks to Apple's iconic "1984" ad, Chipotle's "Back to the Start" work and Ikea's Spike Jonze-directed "Lamp" commercial for inspiration.
"Let's tell the story of a cup that should truly embody the consumer journey and the choices that they're being forced to make," Herber said. "The initial brief was a cup who's looking for something good."
To execute the brief, the brand and agency teamed with director Andy Baker and production studio Hornet who presented a sharp, subversive way to create a spot that is humorous and farcical. Together, the companies embarked on the type of world-building reserved for fantasy and sci-fi TV shows, going as far as to craft taglines and positioning for Glugopoly's fictional brands.
"It was a tremendously collaborative effort. At every turn, every animator, every copywriter, everyone that touched it leaned in to make it the most resonant story possible," Herber said. "We were not trying to make a commercial, we're trying to build a narrative."
An organic approach
The end result is a gorgeously hand-drawn animated short that could resonate with both a Gen X audience raised on MTV staples like "Beavis and Butthead" and Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" video and a Gen Z audience weaned on "Adult Swim" and "Rick and Morty." Plus, the deeply detailed world both provides Easter eggs that encourage rewatching and allow for the brand to comment on culture without the usual hallmarks of organic-minded marketing.
"There's so much great work going on in the sustainability space and organic space, but I think some people get tired of the message and feeling like every decision they have is a life or death decision," Herber explained. "We wanted to make something that was really fun and joyous that could also be shared, and that people can really relate to, rather than delivering a message solely around the proposition of organic and the good that it does for the environment."
Adding to the mood and messaging is the ad's soundtrack, a cover of Duran Duran’s '90s hit “Ordinary World" — licensed for commercial use for the first time — by singer-songwriter Valerie June. While the song wasn't the team's first choice, lyrics like "Papers in the roadside / Tell of suffering and greed" that give way to "As I try to make my way / To the ordinary world / I will learn to survive" prove fitting for the spot, as does June's approach, which sees the song — like the ad — evolve from dystopian to joyful, explained Paul Schmidt, managing director at Progress Studios.
"There are people that can make commercials really quickly — this was not one of those projects," Schmidt said. "It's a very artistic brand and it was a very artistic approach, and also a very organic approach," from the hand-drawn animation and the folksy soundtrack to the campaign's media plan.
"It's counterintuitive that you lead with a 90-second ad in today's media landscape versus a six or a 15, but we're seeing completion rates that are crazy off the charts… something like 60% on the 90s," Schmidt said. “[Consumers] understand the complex message here. It's not just this simple cartoon."