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Air New Zealand’s Rico bows out in a blaze of mysterious glory

Rico, Air New Zealand's furry, double entendre-loving puppet, was a polarising mascot, but he was certainly one of the most talked-about marketing things of the year. And in typically dramatic fashion, he's been killed off with a flourish and a smart digital tie-in to the boardgame Cluedo.

The furry, travel-writing lothario has been hobnobbing it over in the States for a while and hanging out with the likes of David Hasselhoff, Lindsay Lohan and Snopp Dogg, whom he performed a fairly cringey song called Hello Sunshine with that’s got about 600,000 views on YouTube.

And, fittingly, he’s been whacked at a celeb-packed house-warming party in his Los Angeles mansion, with the suspect list comprising of Snoop Dogg, Hugh Hefner’s ex, Holly Madison, Ma’a Nonu, E! News presenter Guliana Rancic, lycra lover Richard Simmons and similarly offensive TV and radio presenter Paul Henry (some cads have said there could be up to four million suspects and others have heard he was found lying in a pool of his own vomit and urine, wearing assless chaps).

In what is a nice little commercial circle jerk with Hasbro, users get to delve into the mystery of Rico’s death and relive those old Cluedo memories at www.byebyerico.com, the first ever online game Hasbro has done. And it’s not just a YouTube gimmick. It’s a very big digital build that is reported to have taken .99, which is currently thought to be fighting for the account with DraftFCB, Saatchi & Saatchi and Special Group, around three months to complete.

Air New Zealand’s ex-head of marketing Jules Lloyd, was pretty proud of Rico when she left. And head of international marketing Jodi Williams also paid tribute to him for achieving his intended goals, particularly overseas.

“Rico’s core purpose over the past year has been to draw global attention to our revolutionary new economy Skycouch and premium economy Spaceseat. As a small airline at the bottom of the world we haven’t had the budgets to take a traditional marketing approach to gain awareness of these award-winning product innovations.

"Thanks to Rico they have had fantastic exposure in our core international markets and beyond. Rico’s risqué approach and online videos resulted in his quick rise to fame over the past year, with more than 4.5 million people watching his videos on YouTube and the Chinese equivalent Yoku, plus hundreds of millions more learning about him through the global media coverage he’s garnered in the likes of the New York Times, Daily Mail UK, Huffington Post, the Examiner, Forbes.com, E! News, OK!, Life and Style, Star, Perez Hilton, and US celebrity news website TMZ.”

She says killing Rico off was never in the long-term plan but they wanted to farewell him in a “uniquely entertaining and light-hearted Air New Zealand way.” She says other companies often let their mascots drift away, so this is a way to keep a few candles burning for Rico and honour his many fans.

As for the detractors who thought his behaviour unsuitable for a brand like Air New Zealand – some felt his lewd conduct was ‘off brand’ and a bad look for a premium airline that had lost its marketing way –  she says reputable brands like the Jim Henson Company and Hasbro were happy to get involved, as were a whole host of celebrities, so that’s enough of an indication for her that he’s been well-received. Rico was also an online play, so, rather than spraying everyone with something a la the broadcast model, social media allows users to opt in.

Rico’s success was cited by judges as one of the reasons Air New Zealand won the 2011 Airline Business marketing strategy award, saying “Air New Zealand is game changing” and that the airline was in an “industry leading position – pushing the outer edge”.

Rico leaves behind a Facebook fan base of more than 47,000 followers, 80 percent of whom are from New Zealand (which is a moderately interesting stat given he was supposedly aimed at foreigners). And whether you liked him or not, full credit to the puppet masters and whoever it was doing all the talking, because there were a few moments of goodness and entertaining Borat-esque, language mangling humour along the way, like this interview with Jacquie Brown.

Air New Zealand hasn’t shied away from weirdness with a follow-up mascot either, with Mason and Jason, the conjoined sheep twins created by its international agency Albion, being set free recently.

But we’re picking Mark Sainsbury’s muppet as a replacement.

This story originally appeared on StopPress.