Almost a quarter of a century after that first sexual frisson, the Gold Blend couple is back, in a bid to persuade a coffee nation obsessed with flat whites that a jar of instant can still lead to lifelong happiness (or at least a kiss). A new pair of budding lovers will take to our TV screens this spring, in the hope of rekindling our love affair with the Gold Blend romance.
The original "Will they, won't they?" series of commercials first appeared on TV in the late Eighties and starred Anthony Head (who went on to play Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the PM in Little Britain) and Sharon Maughan ( Holby City) as a pair of flirtatious yuppies brought together by caffeine. It became one of the most popular advertising campaigns of the last century.
For six years the pair – simply known as the Gold Blend Couple – progressed from instant attraction, to longing and, finally, a declaration of love. And the nation was gripped. When the couple finally got it together in the early Nineties The Sun broke the story with a front-page splash and the headline: 'I LUV YOU . . . the words all Gold Blend drinkers have waited five years for'. Crisis in Europe and IRA bombs at home were relegated to the inside pages.
Thirty million viewers tuned in to see the final instalment of the campaign, which became one of the most watched moments in British television history. As an answer to an advertising brief that had asked how Nescafé could move up-market and see off competition from rivals like Red Mountain and Kenco, the couple campaign – created by McCann Erickson in London – was a triumph.
Gold Blend's sales jumped 20 per cent within 18 months of the ads being introduced. By the time the campaign ended 10 years later, sales of Gold had risen 70 per cent. The strategy was so successful that Nescafé's owner, Nestlé, exported it to the US, where the lovers became the "Taster's Choice Couple". The US ads even featured the same UK actors.
But could it all work again today? History already suggests not. After the original yuppie lovers, Nescafé tried out other Gold Blend couples. None captured the imagination like the first. The scripting and casting fell well short of the original, and there wasn't the same sort of commitment to a long-running series. By the early Nineties, Britain was in a recession, marketing budgets were being slashed, and the idea of committing to an advertising project that would take years and tens of millions of pounds to play through was impossible – a scenario familiar to any marketer in 2010. So, for a host of reasons, very few TV ads these days build into a sustained storyline over a series of executions. Ads are more transitory – a moment in time, then the next commercial will start from scratch with a fresh attempt to stand out and grab consumers' attention. Campaigns might transfer end lines like Honda's "Power of Dreams" or Dairy Milk's "Glass and a Half Full Production" from one ad to the next, but there's little creative similarity, let alone a developing narrative over time.
Of course, it's not easy to build a plot over a mini-series of 30-second spots. You need a marketing budget that can sustain several new executions (at least) a year, and ad agency creatives who can write a good script. Writing great dialogue is a dying art in many ad agencies now – take a look at your average TV break and count how many have any sort of script at all.
Even if you have the money and the creative talent, are the marketing budget and the ad agency really going to be wedded long enough to work on a campaign strategy that has a five-year vision? It's far from guaranteed, in these days of the pitching merry-go-round when client/agency relationships are short-lived and the average tenure for a marketing director is little more than two years. Interestingly, Nescafé and McCanns are still an item, and though most of the people who worked on the original Gold Blend ads are long gone, the brand and the agency have a deep understanding built over decades together. That's incredibly rare now.
Whether consumers still have any tolerance for the narrative that unfolds gradually over time is another matter. We are far too used to our media serving instant gratification on demand and the old cliffhanger drama series like Dallas and Dynasty, which shaped the style of the original Gold Blend story, have been replaced by dip-in, dip-out dramas where each episode is self-contained enough to accommodate the grazing viewer.
What the first Gold Blend campaign really proved was the power of event television, and the possibility that ads, every bit as much as the TV programmes themselves, could be appointment-to-view content. It was more easily achieved back in the late Eighties, of course, when there was no satellite TV or internet to divide the nation's attention. A 30 million audience to a single screening of a TV ad would be almost impossible to achieve today without road-blocking channels at vast expense. The original Gold Blend campaign managed on a budget of £6m a year; you'd probably have to add a nought to that to achieve the same coverage in the same time frame now.
In the decades since the Gold Blend couple made their debut, though, the ad industry has learnt some vital lessons from the strategy. For a start, the campaign proved the real value of PR to amplify the commercial impact. From the front page of the Sun to News At Ten, the ads achieved the sort of media exposure that the fattest of marketing budgets can't buy. Nescafé compounded this with its "event" strategy, promoting the ads in TV listings as if they were dramas.
And just as today the biggest commercial ideas are iterated well beyond the confines of bought spots and space, Nescafé also made video compilations of the ads and CDs of the songs featured. There was even a novel, Love Over Gold, that told the story of the Gold Blend couple. You can still buy it on Amazon.
At a time when marketing investment is under greater scrutiny than ever in corporate boardrooms, a word about the value of the sort of long-term investment that Nescafé made in the original Gold Blend ads. The first incarnation of the campaign ran for 12 episodes over five-and-a-half years, and the brand fame generated by the series meant Gold Blend could afford to reduce its TV investment and still achieve the same impact.
Twenty years after the campaign first appeared, the Gold Blend ads were still resonant enough to be voted the most romantic ads of all time (beating the "Last Rolo" and "All because the lady loves Milk Tray" ads). Ahh... And last year Nescafé was ranked by Interbrand as the 25th most important global brand. And I bet most of you over 35 still have a pretty clear picture of the ads I've been talking about. Now that's great advertising.
Claire Beale is the editor of Campaign