There is a special place in Laurie Scott’s heart for Hanna, ARCO’s enthusiastic dashboard hula girl spokesdoll.
Scott, a copywriter with a wide background in writing for major brands, describes Hanna as her first-born. Hanna was one of many firsts for Scott. It was her first job in advertising at ad agency RPA after years of working in the TV production world, the first campaign she sold, and the first time she was able to write for a character as unique and special as Hanna.
Among the many creatives that worked on this campaign, three former RPA creatives — Scott, who was instrumental in helping develop Hanna’s voice through copy, Stephen Chow, former creative director of ARCO, and former RPA junior art director Patrick Schrader — shared with me their stories and memories of bringing Hanna to life.
Picking a Brand Mascot for ARCO
Chow recalls conversations for ARCO’s first brand icon starting as early as 2015. RPA had been slowly expanding the gasoline brand’s messaging throughout the years with former VP, Strategic Planning Director Scott Jensen working alongside strategic and creative teams to build the case for a brand mascot.
“ARCO’s previous work had always been on the more humor side for the category but they never had a brand mascot,” says Chow.
Before Hanna, however, an alternative initial concept was created for ARCO. It was… one of those wacky, waving, inflatable tube men?
Yep, that’s exactly how Schrader remembers it. Schrader worked for a year at RPA as a Junior Art Director before production began on the campaign. He recalls that the concept of an inflatable tube man mascot, now a bit of funny behind the scenes trivia, would have been deemed “tooooo weird.”
“It was so weird, fun, and out there that it would have been awesome to actually drop one at ARCOs all over,” Schrader admits. “Alas, that was a little too ridiculous for a gas station brand.”
What would be a less ridiculous, and more fitting, character to advertise gas? Schrader had seen convenience store chain ampm experience success with their offbeat brand mascot Toomgis. He felt confident that, alongside Scott, they could pursue that route in a fun, interesting way that other competitors had yet to explore.
In late 2016, the concept of Hanna was created, and Scott was briefed to work on the project. Prior to Hanna, the most recent ARCO TV commercials were all set at the gas station. These spots involved puns or dream sequences. There were no spokespersons or recurring characters.
Hanna was about to change everything for ARCO.
Bringing Hanna to Life
Scott recalls that the creative team spent about a month concepting and developing various campaign ideas around the idea that you get more than what you pay for at ARCO.
“We landed on the dashboard hula doll as the embodiment of the fun and adventures made possible by a reliable car and cash in your pocket,” Scott says.
Hanna’s personality, as Scott describes her, is enthusiastic, charming, clever, and innocent but knowledgeable within a very narrow tranche. Sometimes, Hanna also reveals she has a slightly competitive nature.
Hanna is all about getting the most out of every experience, including filling up at the gas station. She is quite adventurous, traveling to all sorts of places and trying new things because of the quality she gets and money she saves at ARCO.
Hanna’s voice was developed through countless iterations of scripts. Her adventures, and reactions, were carefully selected to fit the ARCO brand and the campaign’s footprint. It was necessary that Hanna’s experience was in line with her personality.
A balance needed to be carefully struck in knowing about her own world and learning about new things. Often this happened the hard way, as Scott uses the examples of Hanna dealing with setbacks during her adventures. For example, she might get sunburned at the beach or end a mule ride with a nibbled grass skirt.
Scott says that one of the most difficult aspects in writing for the character was pinning down her name. The creative team spent hours on baby name websites to pick out the perfect name.
“We walked a fine line, trying to find a name befitting one of the most quintessentially American of car accessories without straying into cultural appropriation,” Scott says.
Hanna Makes Her Debut
By 2017, the right creative was on board to support the campaign. Focus groups had been conducted with overwhelming positive feedback about Hanna. The seven spots that would run for the first two years of the campaign were filmed in January 2017. ARCO’s first commercials starring Hanna made their debut on March 27, 2017.
Internally, everyone at RPA was very excited about the campaign. Scott was delighted that the audience response was so positive and that the new campaign, and Hanna, helped shift perception of the ARCO brand.
“Having Hanna as the spokesdoll was very liberating,” Chow says. “Hanna opened up the idea of being able to go to more places with the reliability of Top Tier gas as well as ARCO’s value propositions. It allowed us to move the story beyond the technical aspects of the product. We can tell stories and share the joy of getting to go more places from the perspective of a dashboard hula girl.”
She’s a Real Spokesdoll!
Is Hanna a real dashboard hula girl? Yes! She even bobbles, according to Scott. Hanna’s look was developed alongside the talented team at Legacy Effects. Their team crafted and hand-painted fifteen different versions of Hanna.
Former RPA art director Laurel Lunsford designed Hanna’s outfits. Hanna is known for going all-in for every experience, so the creative team wanted to make sure she wore a different, activity-appropriate outfit for every destination.
“It was an interesting challenge, trying to change the costume while grounding it in the original design so there wouldn’t be any confusion as to whether this was the same character,” Scott says. “Laurel did a fantastic job of creating solutions that worked on every level.”
Legacy Effects not only helped craft all seven of the dressed-up figurines. They made a poseable “stunt double” for each one, allowing the creatives at RPA to have a lot of fun with the montage images.
And wouldn’t you know it, but a member of the Legacy Effects team was also an accomplished hula dancer! Scott says she was gracious enough to dress up and demonstrate a variety of moves and pose for the team. These reference shots helped ensure Hanna’s pose and costume were authentic for her character design.
Moving Forward with Hanna
After the campaign’s initial two-year run wrapped up, it was time to refresh Hanna’s campaign. However, by then Scott had shifted to work on a different client. She was since left RPA to go in-house and hasn’t been involved in the campaign since its early days.
However, Scott is proud to see where others have taken this campaign and they’ve helped Hanna grow. She’s excited to see where Hanna heads next — ideally in a spot where Hanna attends a monster truck rally. (“She’s a huge monster truck fan,” Scott reveals.)
Much like the horizon ahead of us when we’re driving to our next destination, the possibilities for Hanna are endless!
“It is so much fun writing a character as positive and open as Hanna and to see the world from her perch there on the dashboard,” Scott reminisces.
Where Will the Future Take Hanna?
Now, heading into her fifth year as spokesdoll, Hanna’s world only continues to expand. In recent outings, she’s battled sludge monsters in the murky depths of her own engine, expanded her social circle among other seemingly inanimate characters, and shared the spotlight with a doppelgänger or two.
“While Hanna predates me on the ARCO brand, I was at RPA as Hanna was developed, and always thought that it was a particularly clever use of a spokes-character, and how inviting and warm the tone of ARCO became as a result,” says Jeff St. Jean, current Creative Director on the ARCO SW brand. “Now, since I am currently on the brand, it’s been just the right amount of challenge to continue to see how we can expand her world and voice, while keeping all the positivity and quirkiness that make her so unique and charming.”
And while Hanna’s popularity and role within the brand continues to grow, there’s no diva behavior to be found as the team at RPA plots her next rounds of adventures. With the road as her home, there’s no telling where her effervescent charm and deep knowledge of quality gas will take her next.
“What’s nice about Hanna is that she knows everything about cars and gas (she’s lived her entire life on the dashboard of a car), but isn’t intimidating at all.” Erin Costello, current Creative Director on the ARCO SW brand says.
“She makes delivering messages about engine sludge and fuel economy easy, and entertaining for the audience. Even though Hanna is just a bobblehead doll on a dashboard, she really has a defined, likeable personality that makes her a joy to work with on ARCO.”