One of the world’s great slogans—Nike’s ‘Just Do it’—recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Another similarly enduring slogan isn’t too far behind, with Dilmah’s ‘Do Try It’ coming up 20. But the catch phrase that is now used in 103 countries has a slightly surprising and little known New Zealand connection, with small Auckland agency Curtiss and Spence responsible for getting the owner of Dilmah,
Merrill J Fernando, to utter the phrase on TV all those years ago.

So how did it all happen?

“The Yellow Pages,” laughs Daron Curtiss, who still works with Dilmah today.

That notion seems positively quaint these days, but at the time Fernando, who preferred to work with small agencies, was looking for a partner in the New Zealand market. So he simply looked in the book, gave them a call and locked in a meeting.

When they met for the first time, Curtiss says it was obvious Fernando had something special, and, being a nation founded on trading, he says Fernando wanted to know immediately if they wanted the work. Before signing on, however, Curtiss asked to spend a few days getting to know him better. And, while out and about and talking to people in the supermarkets, Curtiss says he would always say ‘do try it’.

At the time, Australian-based Sri Lankan singer Kamahl fronted (and sung in) Dilmah’s ads, but Curtiss convinced Fernando that he should be the voice and face of the company instead. He wasn’t too keen, but he eventually agreed to do it. And after the first few attempts during filming in Sri Lanka, which Curtiss says basically consisted of Fernando standing up and shouting at the camera, they got him to relax and speak naturally. He did, the phrase gradually became part of the furniture and Dilmah’s market share started rising.

“When we made the first ad [around 20 years ago], Dilmah’s market share was about 1.8 percent. Nine months later it was at eight percent.”

Because the first ad was so successful, they made another series of ads around nine months later. And he relates a tale about the pair coming out of what is now Toybox and what was then Flying Start on the weekend after checking out the final product, only to see a group of “teenage larrikins” parked beside them in the car park.

“I thought, ‘oh Christ, what’s going to happen here?’ And one of the guys leaned out the window and said ‘Do try it’. So I said to Merrill, you know it’s working.”

In an age of media and audience fragmentation, it’s much more difficult to create a slogan that has that kind of longevity. But back in the early ‘90s, you put your ad on TV and, as Mike Hutcheson often says, you pretty much reached everyone in the country who wasn’t in a coma. But Curtiss says he knew the slogan was good when he heard Fernando say it during filming.

“We tried a range of them, but we fixed on one style. And when you saw the sincerity of the man, I had a feeling it was going to be successful.”

Now Dilmah’s market share is somewhere around the 30 percent mark in New Zealand, but Merrill is now in his 80s, so a transition has begun and, once again, New Zealand is playing host to some tea-related pioneering for Dilmah, with the most recent ads by Curtiss and Spence more prominently featuring his son Dilhan C Fernando.

Merrill is still in the ads and still utters the famous end line, but the torch is now starting to be passed (Curtiss says the other son Malik focuses more on the company’s extensive tourism businesses).

The Fernando family are currently in New Zealand to sign off the most recent ads and to take a gander at the Kiwi version of the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge. And while Curtiss says he works primarily on the tea side of the business, it’s impossible to separate the tea trader from the philanthropist.

In many ways, Curtiss says Fernando was ahead of his time, and has had a major focus on bettering the lives of the growers and workers, as well as those less fortunate through a range of charitable initiatives. Unlike many corporate social responsibility schemes, it’s at the core of the company, and it also stretches into the real world, with schemes to help down syndrome children, battered wives and street kids and many other charitable initiatives.

Curtiss says Fernando wanted to keep a lot of that under the radar, but in an effort to educate consumers about what separates Dilmah from the tea companies owned by multinational food conglomerates, he has had to start telling the stories about his take on ethical and sustainable tea. And it’s still generally topped off with a phrase that was conjured up 20 years ago.

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