Terry Murden looks at why Comparethemarket.com's cult figurehead has everyone sitting up and taking notice

HE'S become one of the most celebrated personalities in television commercials, with his own catchphrase, spin-off chat show and 600,000 Facebook fans.

Aleksandr Orlov, the meerkat and rising star of telly-land, was in Edinburgh last week to film the latest in the series of phenomenally successful adverts for price comparison website Comparethemarket.com.

Since their launch a year ago, the meerkat adverts have been a roaring success for ad agency VCCP, owned by Lord Bell's Chime Communications. Aleksandr's catchphrase "Simples!" has permeated popular consciousness, won mentions from celebrities such as Davina McCall – and has even entered the Oxford English Dictionary after being voted the new word of the year.

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The adverts were an instant hit, creating a huge challenge for rival sites after they saw their share of traffic decline sharply. In the first eight months since launch, Comparethemarket.com's share in terms of UK visits to the insurance category jumped by 76 per cent, according to Hitwise, the online intelligence company. Moneysuper-market.com shed 25.2 per cent, Confused.com fell by 5 per cent and GoCompare.com by 31.8 per cent.

The meerkat adverts' success prompted rivals to rethink their strategies. GoCompare.com introduced the fictional opera singer Gio Compario and sought to increase its use of social media. Several reviewed their advertising accounts in what has become one of the more lucrative areas for the sector's biggest names. Beattie McGuinness Bungay won the 25 million Confused.com account in a four-way pitch that included McCann Erickson.

The latest market-share figures for December 2009 against the previous December – a month before the meerkat campaign launched – show the meerkat's rivals still holding a healthy lead, but indicate that the gap is closing. Moneysupermarket.com has 18.97 per cent (-4.3 per cent), GoCompare.com 6.89 per cent (+0.72 per cent), Confused.com 4.23 per cent (+0.5 per cent), and Comparethemarket.com 3.32 per cent (+1.93 per cent).

Significantly for marketers, the meerkat adverts appear regularly among the most recalled by viewers, beaten only by Cadbury's dancing eyebrows in tellyAds.com's top 20 poll for 2009.

Cadbury, facing a hostile takeover bid, has a long track record of iconic advertising including the changing fashions for Flake and the Drumming Gorilla for Dairy Milk, created by Fallon, the same agency behind the eyebrows campaign.

But the meerkat campaign has injected a fresh sense of confidence into the advertising sector. The fragmented nature of modern TV has spurred ad agencies to seek out the unusual and wacky to grab attention, though some have fallen foul of the watchdogs, parents, and health and safety campaigners. The meerkat adverts were even accused of racism for mocking eastern European accents.

But the Russian voiceover – provided by Simon Greenall, who played Geordie Michael in I'm Alan Partridge – is arguably the key reason behind the campaign's success, apart from the public's fondness for cute furry animals.

A successful formula for advertisers, more often than not, is to include animals – real or animated. The meerkat and the gorilla were the latest among a long list of advertising favourites including Churchill the dog, the Kleenex puppy and Bob the feline promoting Nestl Purina's Go Cat pet food.

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But few have developed such a range of spin-offs as the meerkat. Aside from the social networking sites – including 30,000 followers on Twitter – and glossy magazine "interviews", Aleksandr was launched as a 19.95 toy for sale in Harrods to catch the Christmas trade. A monthly online chat show featured Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff as the first guest. Soon after the campaign began, visitors to the meerkat section at London Zoo reportedly increased by 40 per cent and it has even inspired a chant among football fans. Some have taken the meerkat's popularity further by naming children after him. Ten babies in Scotland were registered as Aleksandr last year.

The original adverts featured Aleksandr singing along to two apparently different tunes, Comparethemarket.com and Comparethemeerkat.com, a simple play on words that has proved ingenious. Visitors to YouTube, impressed with the agency's attention to detail, noted that he listened intently to the first while miming the words to the second, as if to emphasise the difference.

The advertising industry now sees it as a perfect case study in how to deploy every medium to maximum effect. The campaign achieved all its 12-month objectives within just nine weeks of launch, lifting Comparethemarket.com from fourth to first in the sector. In that time traffic rose by 400 per cent and quote requests by 80 per cent.

Awards have followed, including Best TV and Cinema Campaign and Best Digital Campaign. VCCP has shared the success, being pushed to the forefront of adland.

Yet the campaign proved a tough sell when joint creative directors Darren Bailes and Steve Vranakis tried to convince the client to buy the idea. They had to climb onto chairs and imitate meerkat behaviour to illustrate how the advert would appear on screen.

The results of the past year have surpassed even the agency's own expectations and, so long as the adverts retain their appeal, there will be new variations on the theme. Clement Woodward, another creative on the team, said they intended to create a believable character.

Marketing director Mark Vile said: "We knew that Aleksandr would help us address the issue of being remembered in a market that has never been considered high interest by consumers, but it is fair to say that we have been surprised and delighted by how people have taken up the campaign. However, no-one could have predicted what has happened on Facebook and Twitter."

Last week, in Bakehouse Close, off the Royal Mile, a film production crew was producing the next instalment in Aleksandr's story, declining interviews and photographs "to keep their rivals guessing". All we know is that it will feature a medieval marketplace, but whether there'll be a Scottish twist to the meerkat's story is anyone's guess. Comparethemercat.com?