Mystery, Mustard and Marketing: The Birth of the Fluent Device

Cryptic teasers on London buses are a common advertising trick. In 1926 they were a great deal rarer. When puzzled commuters saw posters asking “Has Your Father Joined The Mustard Club?”, dozens phoned the bus companies demanding an explanation. But by the end of that year, the Mustard Club was a household name in Britain. The campaign for Colman’s Mustard was one of the first examples of a new kind of advertising idea, one that would go on to drive profitable growth for hundreds of brands in the decades since: a Fluent Device.

(All Mustard Club images © Unilever and Colman’s Mustard)

The Mustard Club campaign was created by Dorothy L. Sayers, the famous detective novelist, in her day job as a copywriter for S H Benson.  Bus posters were just the start. Print ads with the Rules of the Mustard Club (“eat mustard at all times”) appeared in magazines; the club members – headed by the hearty Baron De Beef – were introduced in cartoons; badges and a recipe book appeared; the music hall star Harry Fay released a 78rpm single.

The Club even starred in at least one filmed ad over the campaign’s 7-year lifespan. It was a silent newsreel pastiche in which Baron De Beef and his crew presided over an “Athletics Meating” with prizes given out by Club Secretary Di Gester.

(Watch the Mustard Club Silent Newsreel)

It was cross-platform marketing when platforms were just things you waited at for steam trains, and it was remarkably successful. We may not have ROI details, but we do know that Colman’s took on ten new staff to handle the correspondence, and around half a million Mustard Club badges were mailed out.

For us, the Mustard Club is fascinating because it’s a very early example of what we call a Fluent Device. There are a few different kinds of Fluent Devices, but in essence it’s a character or situation created by a brand to recur across a campaign. Think the Smash Martians from the 1970s, or Renault’s Papa and Nicole from the 1990s. Or look more globally – Fluent Devices are not just a British thing – and consider Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign in the US, or Smiths’ Crisps The Gobbledok in Australia, or Germany’s HB-Mannchen, or Softbank’s Otosan in Japan.

What’s the difference between a Fluent Device and a brand mascot or other distinctive brand asset? It’s all in how they’re used. A Fluent Device drives the creative, an asset just features in it. If the ad would still make sense without the asset, it’s probably not a Fluent Device. When 23 million British viewers tuned in to see the final “Papa and Nicole” Renault Clio ad in 1998, they weren’t doing it because it was a great ad. It was the end of a story and the last appearance of characters they’d come to love.

(Watch the Final Papa/Nicole ad)

That kind of sustained storytelling is an extreme example, but it points to what makes the Fluent Device such a powerful tool. It’s a way of making long-term advertising that builds Feeling (emotional response to ads) and Fluency (rapid brand recognition) together. Too often in creative work the two work against each other – the emotional impact of an ad is diluted by a parade of clumsily placed logos and other assets. A Fluent Device is a way of instantly signalling who a commercial is for while using familiar characters and situations to actually boost audience enjoyment.

There may be earlier examples of the Fluent Device than the Mustard Club – and we’d love to hear about some of them. But the Club definitely fits the bill. It has the characters built up over multiple appearances. It has the framework for repeated scenarios – the mustard-related doings of the club. It even has merchandising and interaction opportunities. It’s no surprise a great storyteller like Dorothy L Sayers invented them.

We’ve been proud to work with the IPA on some ground-breaking work exploring the use of Fluent Devices, asking and answering the 5-Star question: do Fluent Devices make advertising more profitable? System1 CIO Orlando Wood will be presenting it as part of IPA Effectiveness Week at a morning event on Wednesday, 11 October, complimentary to Eff Week 2017 ticket holders (details available here). Come along if you can, and watch this space for more on Fluent Devices soon.

Written by Tom Ewing, Senior Director – Labs at System1 Research

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