Read about the creation of the Babybel Mr. Cool special shape hot air balloon, written by ex VABC Creative Director Mark Lockwood.
Babybel Mr Cool should have been a cow. Well that’s how the concept started out as we contacted their UK office in Kent and proposed that we build a giant red smiling cow balloon to promote their famous ‘Laughing Cow’ brand.
Discussions and concepts went backwards and forwards for over a year and the cow morphed into a wheel shaped tub of the famous cheese (Laughing Cow ‘Light’) or even just a single triangular slice, as all of these would have been viable operational shapes and garnered significant media impact when the right PR machine rolled into action. Doodles turned into hand drawn visuals and many hours were spent burning the midnight oil to produce something (anything) that would catch the eye of Les Français across La Manche.
Like many speculative proposals I pitched over the years, I filed this one under ‘good effort, must try harder’ and moved on to more active and profitable propositions.
Then a phone call came from the nice lady with the nice French accent at Bel with a summons to the leafy lanes of Kent as they had an ‘Ideé’ to discuss. Armed with all my cows, concepts and crayons I duly trucked down from the West Midlands to be told that France did not need to promote their creamy cheese triangles to ‘Les RosBifs’ as the tubs and triangles were falling off the shelves and into Tommy’s lunch box in sufficient numbers to make even Napoleon smile. However, their little wax wrapped Mini Babybel’s were not quite cutting it cheese sales wise as well as they would like. It would seem that, although a very popular snack amongst parents, it did not have the right school playground uber coolness amongst the kids - but this would all change.
So back I trundled with a little sample string bag of wax wrapped wonders to Telford, where I called a creative summit meeting with my two (then) young designers: Simon Gater and Mark Urey. I look back now and am proud that many of the young creative guys that came to work for me cut their teeth on projects that allowed their true creativity to fly, literally, and that all of them are now multi award winning creative guru’s of their own.
This was a project that needed an injection of ‘Yoof’ culture and technology. I had already introduced computer design to the studio and these were the very early days of 3D CAD design. The software was clunky, very user unfriendly and, despite having the most powerful Mac in the entire Virgin Group IT inventory, still painfully slow. They called it a ‘Power Mac’ but it was still only the equivalent of a 486PC with the then huge amount of 500Mb of RAM. Floppy drives held 1.44Mb of data and were the only way of getting files in or out of the machine. Today I have more processing power in my watch than I did in the entire studio. To render a Photoshop file of 12Mb, you made changes then hit ‘enter’ and went and had a coffee, or even a three Martini lunch whilst it rendered!
Despite this grindingly slow technology, we decided this would be the first shape we were going to design digitally from scratch. Before it could enter the cyberworld, we needed to brainstorm the overall concept and find that magical ‘hook’ that would fulfil the client and media needs.
It would have been simple to create just a replica of the product and would have been perfectly acceptable from an operational point of view as well as construction, but this needed to be sprinkled with magic ‘cool’ dust. In our concept meeting I floated the idea that each little waxed package contained a serious amount of ‘cool’ that needed to be let out. In fact, what if each little cheese was a cool dude trying to get out?
‘Mr Cool’ was born as a complete and finished concept!
As one of the Unique Selling Points of the brand was the tab you pulled to open the wax wrapper, we decided to highlight this and some time was spent working out how he would peel himself out and finally settled on the hand pulling open the tab. The shades came as a matter of course. The basic shapes then started the CAD process and his legs and boots soon appeared after that. Mark Urey then came back and said “Why don’t we give him some roller blades?” and proceeded to visualise the wheels as Mini Baybel cheeses. Genius!
The computer allowed us to look at the shape in 3D wireframe turnaround, something we had never been able to do beforehand. We were able to look at the aesthetic balance of the whole envelope as well as evaluate the technical structure that would be required on the inside to hold the shape together. It showed that a parachute valve was possible and this added to the operational viability as getting the air out of a complex series of extensions was a perennial problem. As with many of the more complex shape programmes, we designed a back up branded 31 envelope for those days when the weather would not allow the shape out of the bag and, more specifically, to service a structured series of educational schools visits during the winter season.
The rendering process took a whole weekend and still required touch ups and detailing to be finished in Photoshop before I could schlep all the way back down to Kent and present the idea. In front of the entire brand team flown in from France for the day I had to role play the entire concept to a group of their marketeers. To my delight and surprise, the final reveal of the concept was greeted by a sharp intake of breath and obvious zeal as it was agreed there and then to go ahead! Poussez le button!
At the time we had a lot of other shapes in production and I knew Camerons were pretty much flat out, which would mean a delay in completion that would miss the majority of the summer season. Lindstrand Balloons were just up the road in Oswestry and with capacity to deliver within the shortest time. Having worked with the team there from Thunder and Colt days onwards I knew they would be able to bring him to life and that year I spent most of the pre-season on the road between Bristol and Oswestry keeping tabs on the various builds and making sure we were getting the details nailed down.
Concurrently the design team were working on the educational resource that followed various key stages of the then UK educational curriculum. We had extensive experience of doing this from other contracts and the package was put together in conjunction with a head teacher from a school in Wellington to ensure it fulfilled the right needs.
Mr Cool made a secret test inflation in Oswestry and, apart from a slight tweak to his shades and opening up a little extra pressure into his tab, was right on straight out of the trailer. He was immediately booked for his first appearance at Longleat.
Photo credit: Ballooning Pictures UK
Together with the schools programme and regular visits to the major balloon festivals, Mr Cool joined the ever growing portfolio of balloons operated at VABC through the 1990s.
Thanks to Gabrielle Grunaer, Babybel is still appearing at events across Europe. Although a little porous, he is still very cool!
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