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Serta International

Serta International

5401 Trillium Boulevard
Hoffman Estates, Illinois 60192-3411
USA
Telephone: (847) 645-0200
Fax: (847) 645-0205
Web site: www.serta.com

COUNTING SHEEP CAMPAIGN

OVERVIEW

At the beginning of 2000 mattress maker Serta International had three advertising goals in mind: increase brand awareness, win consumer loyalty, and entice retailers to stock more of the company's products. Traditionally an unexciting category, mattress advertising did not generate much consumer passion. Buyers tended to feel that there was little difference between the companies that manufactured mattresses. This was not helped by the fact that Serta's biggest competitors, Sealy and Simmons, also had names beginning with S. Michigan advertising agency W.B. Doner & Company (known as Doner) sought to remedy Serta's image and advertising problems with the "Counting Sheep" campaign.

Claymation company Aardman Animations was enlisted to create original and lovable sheep characters to inhabit TV commercials that would tout the comfort and quality of Serta mattresses. In the launch spot of July 2000, sheep with numbers on their sides arrived at the home of an insomniac couple so that they could "count sheep" to fall asleep. The couple informed the bewildered sheep that they were so comfortable on their new Serta bed that the sheep's counting services were no longer required. This and similar television commercials ran nationally at bedtime and on the weekends, when most mattresses were purchased. The campaign's budget of $24 million primarily bought television time on networks and cable channels. Print ads, in-store displays, and Internet elements were also included in the budget.

Results of the campaign were immediately measurable. In 2001 a survey by polling-services company Roper Starch Worldwide showed that more women who had a mattress brand in mind had settled on Serta than on industry leader Sealy (58 percent to 18 percent respectively) for their next mattress purchase. This was a significant change from a precampaign Roper survey that put both companies at an even 39 percent. The campaign itself garnered a Gold EFFIE Award in 2002 for the ad agency, and the spots themselves won other industry recognition.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Serta International, headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, was founded in 1931 by 13 mattress makers who joined together to license the Serta name. The privately owned company expanded, reconfiguring many times through the years. By 1997 Serta had become a private mattress-licensing entity with 28 factories in the United States and 20 internationally. The company's Perfect Sleeper mattress was listed then as the one most purchased by American hotels, and it was third in the country for mattress market share. In 1990 Serta had achieved an industry coup when Ed Lilly, formerly of the number one mattress maker, Sealy, joined the company as president and CEO. During the 1990s, under Lilly's guidance, advertising on a national level included television, print, and support of National Public Radio. The "We Make the World's Best Mattress" campaign began in 1993 and continued for the rest of the decade. It was designed to heighten brand awareness by creating emotional connections with the mattress-buying audience (in contrast to the product-focused ads of its top competitors). In 1997 the company spent $17 million on national campaigns.

By the year 2000 Serta had reached $729 million in mattress sales. It had for the moment pushed past Simmons. The Atlanta-based Simmons had been accustomed to the number two spot in the field, but it recorded $2 million less than Serta in sales that year. Slipping into second place by a narrow margin, Serta was looking to put some distance between itself and Simmons while gaining on the other "Big S," Sealy. Doner, which was headquartered in a Detroit suburb and was the country's largest independent advertising agency, was given the task of refreshing the company's national presence. It met the challenge by creating the hugely successful "Counting Sheep" campaign.

TARGET MARKET

As the 1990s came to a close, the consensus in the mattress industry was that women were either more likely to buy new mattresses for themselves or were responsible for initiating the purchase of a new mattress for their family. Thus Serta aimed its "Counting Sheep" campaign at women aged 25 to 54. Satirical humor was combined with an approachable cute factor in an attempt to win women's dollars and brand loyalty. Because a mattress was not a frequent purchase for most customers, Serta needed to make a lasting impression in women's minds. A sensitivity toward women was reflected in the company's website. For instance, a "Pillow Talk" section described the various stages of life and sleeping patterns, singling out children's as well as pregnant and menopausal women's sleeping needs. Men's sleeping needs were not specifically mentioned at all but rather were covered under the umbrella of stages for adolescents, adults, and seniors.

In the industry as a whole a new trend toward catering to the female audience began to emerge in mattress marketing and design. Furniture designer and former supermodel Kathy Ireland launched her own mattress line that was made by Lady Americana. Actress Lindsay Wagner (perhaps best known for playing the title character of the 1970s TV show The Bionic Woman) was made spokeswoman for Select Comfort, while Simmons tapped designer Karen Neuberger for a top-of-the-line mattress tie-in. Not to be outdone, Serta designed a mattress specifically for women, called Perfect Day, which made its debut in 2005. This product not only featured attractive embroidered details but also, and more importantly, promised to help address the energy deficit that busy women so often experienced. The Serta ad pitch toward women was maintained by the "Counting Sheep" commercials through the early 2000s, and it seemed to hit the target. A 2002 survey by polling firm Roper Starch Worldwide indicated that 75 percent of women in the 25-to-54 age group said that they had seen or heard of the sheep commercials.

COMPETITION

Sealy had long been the number one company among the top three mattress producers: Sealy, Serta, and Simmons. Throughout the period of 2000 to 2005 Serta and Simmons had been trading the second and third spots back and forth. In 2000, when Serta's "Counting Sheep" first hit the national scene, the North Carolina-based Sealy pulled in a hefty $1.102 billion compared to Serta's $729 million and Simmon's $727 million. Sealy, in business since 1906, was the first mattress maker to focus on back support, introducing its Posturepedic line of mattresses in the 1950s. Advertising in the mattress industry had always been notoriously dull, but with the success of the "Counting Sheep" campaign, even Sealy took notice. By 2002 it had released its own creative ad campaign using the tagline "It's made for sleep. It's a Sealy." The premise of the TV commercials for this campaign was that if Sealy made other products, they would be so comfortable that buyers would fall asleep in the showroom. One TV spot featured a car buyer who could not stay awake once he sat in a "Sealy" car at the dealership. The voice-over that followed stated, "This is why we don't make cars."

LESS FIREPOWER FROM SERTA

Serta received national attention in spring 2004, when it introduced FireBlocker, a flame-dampening material, on all Serta mattresses. The launch of the flame-resistant products had come well ahead of the January 2005 deadline for a new bedding standard mandated by law in California and was expected to be an effective selling point for retailers.

At this time Simmons, the perennial thorn in Serta's sales side, focused advertising on its longtime message "Better Sleep through Science." Always positioning itself as an innovator, Simmons touted the "no-flip" mattress design of its flagship brand, Beautyrest, as well as the advent of the Olympic Queen, which fit on a queen-size frame but allowed 10 percent more sleeping space than the traditional queen-size mattress.

MARKETING STRATEGY

In 2000 the ad agency Doner devised the Serta "Counting Sheep" campaign to do three things: measurably increase brand awareness by communicating an identifiable image for Serta; achieve preference on the part of female buyers so that they would go into a store intending to buy a Serta; and make sure more retailers were stocking Serta's product lines. The campaign was a full-scale integration of television, industry publications, point-of-sale, and online media. Most of the $24 million advertising dollars that Serta budgeted for 2000 went toward buying airtime for its newly crafted television spots. Created by Aardman Animation, the Claymation company behind the hit animated feature Chicken Run (2000), the spots featured adorable sheep that arrived to provide their counting services for a couple who was usually sleep-challenged, only to be turned away because of the superior comfort provided by the couple's new Serta mattress. The commercials were a mix of animated characters and live actors. The sheep themselves had the familiar widemouthed look of the animals from the popular film, which conveyed the kind of charm and appeal that every advertiser hoped for. The personality-driven "Counting Sheep" campaign was a deliberate move away from previous Serta advertising imagery of anonymous people sleeping on clouds or awakening from a restful, refreshing sleep.

Released in July of 2000, the spots aired on cable channels and national network hit shows, such as the female-oriented comedy Ally McBeal, the family-focused game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and the late-night comedy staple Saturday Night Live. Airing at nine o'clock p.m. or later, Wednesday through Saturday, these shows were chosen because of their proximity to bedtime and weekend mattress shopping. The company's old tag-line, "We Make the World's Best Mattress," gave way to a new message, "So Comfortable, You'll Feel the Difference the Moment You Lie Down." Rather than emphasize the long-term benefits of back health or good sleep, Serta wanted to convince potential buyers that they would experience immediate satisfaction if they tested a Serta out at a retailer.

The counting sheep were well received and came back for more pitching duties in subsequent years. They became the face of Serta and were used on all advertising materials. In an August 2002 issue of Furniture Today, Susan Ebaugh, Serta chief brand officer, expressed her confidence in the campaign: "Based on the outstanding results we're getting, the Counting Sheep campaign will be around for a long time…. There is virtually no limit to the story extensions that can be developed." The campaign continued in 2002 with a $21 million dollar budget for national advertisements, which Serta intended to reach nearly all U.S. adults. The new spots showed the numbered sheep becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that Serta's comfort and quality caused their employment prospects to dwindle. One fed-up sheep committed the unlawful act of ripping a mattress tag off with his teeth. Another spot featured the sheep attempting to sue Serta for emotional distress. More TV spots were introduced in 2003 and 2004. In each of the 2004 spots a voice-over at the end announced Serta's Web address and mentioned that "counting sheep" merchandise was available at the site. In a September 2004 issue of Furniture Today, Serta's Ebaugh restated the company's commitment to the effort, saying, "Each year, Serta's Counting Sheep campaign continues to expand consumer awareness of and preference for the Serta brand."

OUTCOME

Serta's goals of gaining more favorable brand recognition, creating a higher percentage of buyer preference, and increasing retail demand were beginning to be met by "Counting Sheep" in the first two years of the effort. In 2001 HFN, a publication for the home-products industry, listed Serta in the number 12 spot on its survey of the 100 most recognizable home brands, a dramatic rise from its position as 17th in 1999. Also in 2001 Roper Starch Worldwide, a polling-services company, released results of a survey showing that, among women who expressed a brand choice for their next mattress purchase, more intended to buy a Serta (58 percent) than a Sealy (18 percent). A similar Roper study prior to the campaign had put intent to purchase for the two brands at an equal 39 percent.

Retailers responded to the campaign by readily using sheep-themed support items, such as Serta Sheep poster displays in the showrooms and a giant sheep balloons floating over the stores. In 2002 Doner won a Gold EFFIE Award—an esteemed advertising prize rewarding campaign efficacy—for the campaign in the Household Furnishings category. Other awards included a first-place award for one sheep commercial in the London International Advertising Festival in 2001. Serta looked healthy as 2005 approached, registering a 5.5 percent increase in shipments, which had totaled $783 million the previous year.

FURTHER READING

Buchanan, Lee, and Nancy Meyer. "That Peaked Feeling." HFN, March 12, 2001, p. 55.

"Conveying the Message—with Feeling." HFN, July 14, 2003, p. 50.

Ebenkamp, Becky. "The Flock Gets Fleeced." Brandweek, July 10, 2000, p. 60.

Kunkel, Karl. "The Brands Play On: Companies Continue to Explore Methods of Getting Their Name Out to the Masses." HFN, July 12, 2004, p. 46.

―――――――. "Commercial Success." HFN, August 19, 2002, p. 46.

―――――――. "An Industry Awakens: Sales in the Category Rise as More Retailers Realize the Benefits of Bedding." HFN, July 12, 2004, p. 42.

"National 2001 Agency Report Cards." Adweek, April 15, 2002, p. 20.

Perry, David. "Big 'S' Brands Still Top List of Bedding Majors." Furniture Today, November 28, 2005 p. 3.

―――――――. "More Counting Sheep Are B-a-a-a-ck." Furniture Today, August 5, 2002, p. 47.

―――――――. "Sheep Take Another Prize." Furniture Today, June 17, 2002, p. 26.

―――――――. "Sherman: Serta Committed to FR." Furniture Today, October 25, 2004, p. 53.

                                             Simone Samano

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