Robert Skollar on Being Best Friends With One of Advertising’s Biggest Icons
Robert Skollar doesn’t mind admitting that he wasn’t a Kool-Aid fan as a kid.
“My family never had it in our house.” He admits, “I only had it at summer camp. I was aware of the brand, and their mascot, but we traveled in different circles.”
For the Kool-Aid Man, that different circle meant existing as the “Pitcher Man” in his early years. Marvin Potts, an art director at Foote, Cone & Belding, came up with the concept for the agency’s client General Foods, which had previously acquired the Kool-Aid brand. (Kraft Foods Group, Inc. now owns Kool-Aid.)
The inspiration was drawn from the smiley faces his son drew on frosted windows. Potts gave a perspiring pitcher of Kool-Aid two eyes, eyebrows, a nose, and a mouth. Voilà! The Pitcher Man was born in 1954 and merrily singing along with children about how a five-cent package of the drink mix makes two quarts of Kool-Aid.
In 1975, Grey Advertising received the Kool-Aid business. Skollar arrived at Grey in 1977 where he started as a copywriter and worked his way to roles that included creative supervisor, creative director, executive creative director, and managing partner. Over the course of the next 29 years, Skollar worked on nearly every account represented by Grey including Major League Baseball, Panasonic, Mars, and Hasbro. A few brand mascots also made their way into that workload like Mr. Monopoly for Monopoly and the Fruit of the Loom Guys. But it was Kool-Aid, dropped into Skollar’s lap in 1987, which would become more than just another advertising account. For the next nine years, Skollar developed a wonderful friendship with the brand’s mascot: The Kool-Aid Man.
From the start, Skollar knew that it was possible to turn Kool-Aid into a huge brand. When the business first came to Grey, it was decently sized. Packages of powdered Kool-Aid were still selling and the brand had TV spots running that starred Bugs Bunny.
General Foods wanted to make Kool-Aid more contemporary, but Skollar wasn’t sure if this was the best strategy. Having cartoon characters in the commercials overwhelmed the brand. The goal for the campaign was to play up Kool-Aid as a sweet, fruity drink that was a win-win for moms and kids, but mostly for kids. Kool-Aid was meant to be a drink created only for them. Skollar tapped into universal truths of being a kid, including putting them at the center of their own universe and a desire for instant gratification. Who could they relate to in their own self-created world of “I want it now!” that would also personify the brand?
Enter the Kool-Aid Man, bursting through a wall in his signature move. Who decided he would make an entrance like that, anyway? Nobody at Grey knows for sure, according to Skollar. “I have one unverified source who attributes that to an art director named Jane Haines. Supposedly, the story is that she decided that instead of having the Kool-Aid Man running on to the scene, his more ‘irreverent’ breakthrough entrance would be more appealing to kids.”
In his origin story, the Kool-Aid Man was considered to be an oversized kid himself. He was about 7 or 8-years-old and a little goofy, but always happy. He existed solely to quench the thirst of children with delicious Kool-Aid. That, and to confound adults with his ability to break through any barrier put in his way. His behavior was never considered to be an act of invasion either. Rather, it played into the destruction element of kid irreverence. A kid might dream of having that kind of superhuman strength, much like flying or being able to read minds, but they would never be able to do it in reality.
Skollar says that the Kool-Aid Man could only be “cool” if the character existed in a world made just for kids. The team at Grey then presented a campaign called “Wacky, Wild, Kool-Aid Style” to Kool-Aid — and they did it without any storyboards.
Instead, they used three pieces of pop culture. First up were clips from “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” followed by the music video for “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel. The presentation was tied together with imagery showcased on a reel from French advertising film director, Jean-Paul Goude. This new world pushed the wacky pedal to the metal. It was full of uninhibited fun, state of the art techniques and visuals, and a dose of the illogical mixed with the surreal.
This was the new recipe for Kool-Aid. It broke every mold possible — and was given the go-ahead to bring to life.
Debuting in the late 1980s and running throughout the 1990s, Kool-Aid’s new ad campaign broke the rules of traditional kids’ advertising because there wasn’t a storyline. All the commercials had was a constant flow of images and techniques. Kool-Aid was also included, in the form of the product itself and its larger than life mascot originally voiced by Richard Berg, a composer in Grey’s music department. (Voiceover artist Frank Simms now voices the Kool-Aid Man.)
Each thirty-second spot combined live action and CGI together. Along with tricky compositing, editing, and music mixing, making Kool-Aid ads required an incredible amount of time and hard work.
“The first commercials I did, ‘lots of great taste and a whole lot more,’ were totally trippy,” Skollar recalls, “It was very MTV, very European. Eventually, we created themed commercials. Then, we did something referred to as ‘human cartoon.’ That’s where the kids and Kool-Aid Man acted like old Warner Brothers cartoons without the animation. They were able to do things that cartoons could, but they didn’t have to actually be cartoons.”
The gamble of zigging where the competition zagged paid off for Grey, General Foods, and Kool-Aid. The “Wacky, Wild, Kool-Aid Style” campaign results were phenomenal. Kids nationwide immediately embraced this new world for their own. The advertising was consistently ranked among kids’ favorites and it had the numbers to back it up.
“After the campaign debuted, for the first time our tracking study revealed that we had overtaken the gold standard of ‘kid coolness,’” Skollar says, “Kool-Aid had actually surpassed colas in terms of kid preference by a 55% to 45% margin.”
It wasn’t a laurel that Kool-Aid, could rest for long on though. While the Kool-Aid Man proved to be popular with kids, even more so than Ronald McDonald at one point, he needed to keep evolving in order to survive.
Throughout the 1990s, Skollar and the team at Grey would keep the brand in vogue by tweaking creative approaches every couple of years. More MTV-inspired music would be introduced in the commercials and new state of the art special effects were added. Product development made Kool-Aid flavors fruitier than ever before, thanks to an increasingly competitive fruit drink marketplace, and new flavors debuted with funky names like Sharkleberry Finn and The Great Bludini. The icon himself also became even cooler. He emceed rock concerts, zipped down the road in a convertible, and chilled out in the Tropics. Ultimately, all of this played into doing what the campaign originally intended: to make Kool-Aid THE soft drink for kids.
“It’s cool to see how as kids evolved, his appeal evolved,” Skollar says, “I think today ‘adults’ have different images of the Kool-Aid Man in their mind. In some ways, the basic, simply goofily awkward Kool-Aid Man has the appeal that has endured the longest and translated to the hipsters of today.”
Hey, how did we even make it this far into writing about the Kool-Aid Man without mentioning his famous catchphrase — “Oh yeah!” — yet? While Skollar isn’t sure whom to credit for coining it, he still loves the tagline. “It’s cool that it has become a universal battle cry for all things awesome.”