The Jim Henson Company has long been linked with such beloved programs as Bear in the Big Blue House, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and, of course, The Muppet Show. Jim Henson's Creature Shop also worked on the characters for the hugely popular film Cats & Dogs. But the company turned to Porter Novelli to help it rejuvenate the brand's legacy for a new audience.
"People feel an affinity to the Muppets and Jim Henson's legacy, but that didn't necessarily translate into dollars,
explains Wendy Watson, Porter Novelli's SVP and youth marketing practice leader. "The goal was to strengthen it into a number-one media powerhouse for family entertainment."
From the beginning, it was obvious that the company needed to find ways to maximize the heritage of the company. "One of the things we did was look at the evergreen strengths of the Jim Henson brand,
explains Watson. One of the company's problems was that it felt it was associated with the Muppets to the exclusion of all its other work.
But when the team realized the company was coming up on the 25th anniversary of The Muppet Show, it proved to be too good an opportunity to let pass by. The plan was to use this benchmark to raise the whole company's profile.
"Our strategic approach was threefold,
Watson says. "To leverage the 25th anniversary of the show. Then we also wanted to renew interest in the Muppet brand through outreach to Muppet nostalgics.
Through those 30- and 40-somethings who were raised on the Muppets, many with children of their own, the team hoped to reach a new demographic.
A celebration called Muppet-Fest! was planned for September 26, 2001, chosen to mark both the anniversary and the late Jim Henson's birthday.
Originally, the team planned to hold activities in both New York and Los Angeles. But September 11 necessitated a change of plans, and the New York event was cancelled.
The West Coast portion was rescheduled to December 8-9, and took place in Santa Monica, CA. The events included the first-ever live Muppet Show performance, which also served as a benefit for Save the Children, raising some $60,000. Jon Voight played a chicken in the show, and Brooke Shields was a stand-in for Miss Piggy, even donning a pig nose.
In the months leading up to the event, the team had various Muppets appearing on shows such as Family Feud, The Hollywood Squares, and Jerry Lewis' Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Kermit became the spokesfrog for USA Today's Make a Difference Day project. Kermit and Gonzo also turned up on NBC's Today show to announce the celebration.
Kermit even had a bylined spread in USA Weekend magazine. In addition, Valentine's Day mailings from Miss Piggy were sent to various celebrities.
The Muppets participated in interviews on radio and TV, and a feature was placed in the Los Angeles Times. The PR team also ran a national survey to find out America's favorite Muppet. Kermit won, naturally.
More than 600 people attended the live Muppet Show, with coverage ranging from E! News Daily to local network affiliates to USA Weekend, the wires, Variety, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.
Significantly, the company has also made various promotional and licensing deals, including one with Long John Silver's to use Pepe the King Prawn as spokesshrimp in its commercials. NASCAR will have Muppet racecars, and is involved in other cobranding deals.
To Debbie McClellan, VP of corporate communications and publicity for The Jim Henson Company, the campaign's success was obvious when the show started. "The minute the curtain opened and Kermit was there, the crowd just went wild,
she says. "That was the moment I knew it was going to be amazing."
Porter Novelli continues to work with the company in developing partnerships and opportunities for the brand. An East Coast version of MuppetFest! is planned for summer 2002. "Keeping Henson timely is an ongoing job,
Watson says. "Requests continue to come in daily for Kermit and Miss Piggy appearances."