“We're #1, But We Taste Like #2” quipped a former Buckley’s ad—just one example of a ‘tell like it is’ advertisement for Buckley’s cough suppressant. To be sure, Buckley’s is nasty tasting, awful smelling stuff. The thick, gooey, sugar- and alcohol-free liquid is the kind of elixir that will send shivers down your spine and clear the cobwebs from your head at the first wince-filled spoonful.
While most cough syrup companies spend millions trying to convince us how palatable they are, Buckley’s has taken a decidedly different approach. Embracing the unembraceable, the Ontario-based company proudly flaunts the fact that they have the worst tasting remedy in the business—an unorthodox marketing strategy that has made the company a household name in Canada and is now delivering slow, but steady growth in the United States.
While Buckley’s has been in existence since 1919 and has always utilized a no-nonsense advertising approach, the company’s current tactics can be traced back to the early ’80s, when as fate would have it, their ad agency went belly up. After a year’s worth of market research the replacement agency realized that everyone in Canada was already aware of Buckley’s—along with its bad taste and undeniable effectiveness. Thus, the agency developed the “It Tastes Awful, And It Works,” campaign featuring company president, Frank Buckley, as spokesman.
At first not everyone was a believer, not even the company president. “When I came to Buckley’s in 1986,” says John Meehan, part owner and current president, “I didn’t like our message. I thought, ‘How can you ever say that about your brand? That’s got to be the stupidest thing ever.’” But he soon realized that the campaign helped to further differentiate an already differentiated product. “Not to denigrate the competition,” continues John, but all the [other] products are the same. You have a clear, purple or green liquid with sugar or alcohol in it and an active ingredient. They all look the same and work the same and they're all equally effective. But when you take Buckley's mixture….”
What Meehan is trying to say is that when you take Buckley’s—which includes Canada balsam, ammonium carbonate, camphor, glycerine and pine needle oil, among other things—you know it right away. “It starts to work the second it hits your tongue. You take that deep breath and you go ‘Whhhhheeeeew’” says John. The contortions necessary to swallow it are so remarkable that people want to introduce it to friends and family…just to watch them take it for the first time. This winter’s television advertisements depict that experience, showing people taking the product and the resulting facial reactions.
Certainly, Buckley’s isn’t the first product that has attracted attention by focusing on a negative attribute. Listerine mouthwash brought us “the taste you love to hate,” reinforcing the notion that if something is really strong then it has to be helping you. But Buckley’s has taken things a step further by using tag lines such as, “Not New. Not Improved” and “People Swear By Us. And At Us.”
Yet the provocative approach isn’t without its downside. “I think we've learned that it's our greatest strength and greatest weakness,” says Meehan. “Quite honestly, some consumers have been scared off by the tag line and haven't tried the product because they think it’s so bad,” says David Rieger, VP of Sales and Marketing. “But I think you’ll always see us using the same line—it’s the key to everything.” According to Meehan the honest advertising approach is now being copied by other Canadian companies and even by politicians. “They refer to ‘It might be tough, but it works’ all the time in their speeches,” says Meehan.
Likewise, Buckley’s has no plans to try to improve upon the taste of its products, which include a Cough & Cold and Bedtime mixture. “We know what makes us successful. We’ve got to stick with it because if we get too fancy we’ll get ourselves in trouble,” notes Meehan. “When somebody says, ‘Why don't you make it taste better?’ My answer to that is, ‘Why don't I just call it Robitussin?’”