I really want to promote Mr Brains Faggots and do my bit to draw attention to the Black Country!” claims Lewis Doody. It is an unusual ambition for a 12-year-old boy, but it obviously helped his family to emerge victorious in last month’s competition to become ambassadors for the Hibernia Foods brand.

The Doody family was one of three who reached the final of the contest after a selection process that took nearly as long as the Pop Idol series. The four-month search drew more than 80 applicants and finalists were put through their paces in activities that included mock TV interviews, role play and a rehearsed spoof ad, as well as several question and answer sessions at London’s Savoy hotel.

Employing a family to represent a family-oriented brand is not a new marketing ploy. The succession of made-for-TV Oxo families bears testimony to its effectiveness, while teenagers bickering about roast potatoes around the Sunday lunch table emphasises the family nature of the McCain’s brand. Even Sainsbury has tried to convey a family image by featuring Jamie Oliver’s friends, wife, mum and granny in the advertising series starring the celebrity chef.

However, appointing a real, unknown family is a ground-breaking move.

Diane Walker, Hibernia Foods commercial director for ready meals, is clear about the company’s long-term hopes. “The brand represents traditional, no fuss great British food,” she says. “And family is central to our consumers’ lives. We wanted to create an initiative that invited maximum involvement and interaction with the brand and to find a family that epitomises the brand’s values.”

Claire Nuttall, consultancy director at Dragon Brands Consulting, agrees the idea has great potential. “If a key value of the brand is ‘down-to-earth’, then why not? The Brains family could be the best brand ambassadors going,” she says.

“Often consumers use brands to achieve aspirational status. Faggots may never get to this level - they represent a down-to-earth dish that has been around a long time and is eaten by all generations, but using a real family could be a great way of adding aspiration through humour and fun, and conveying to consumers that this food brand is accessible and suitable for people like them.”

But Enda McCarthy, joint managing partner at JWT, the advertising agency that created the original Oxo family, warns that the approach has pitfalls: “With a manufactured family you can adjust as society evolves, or bring in new themes as new products are launched,” he explains. “With a real family, you are restricted by what they can actually do. Real families are entertaining, but not necessarily in the way that marketers need.”

So far the Mr Brains’ campaign has had a high profile. The search was launched by flamboyant TV presenter Graham Norton and the judging panel included Christine Hamilton, wife of former Tory MP Neil - who is not known for shunning the limelight. It has already prompted interest from local and regional press and radio stations and the BBC has been filming the process for its Trouble at the Top series.

For those unacquainted with the history of the faggot, the word means a ‘bundle’. The dish - which consists of meatballs made with pork and liver, onions and spices in a rich gravy - evolved from the Black Country and spread to Wales and the West Country (where the Mr Brains brand originated).

Despite its mundane origins, the product and brand names offer wordsmiths a wealth of opportunity for creative puns and Carry On-style humour. And it doesn’t take a genius to imagine some of the headlines that could be written if the campaign goes awry.

And besides looking for a family which is unlikely to present problems in that area, choosing the right family from a selection of real ones also raises the question of whether to opt for people who represent the brand’s current down-to-earth image or try to add an aspirational element to boost the core market.

“To make ‘real life’ work you need a real family and to make people identify with them and that’s phenomenally difficult,” says McCarthy. “Family in the 21st century has changed and, while the danger of manufacturing one to fit a specific set of marketing criteria is that it won’t in any shape or form reflect consumers’ lives, using a real family can also raise that problem, despite the credentials of reality.”

The Mr Brains judges had to choose between families representing differing sections of the social spectrum. While two opted for the Daily Mirror or the Sun as their source of news and took their holidays in Spain, Disneyland Paris, or Cornwall, the other favoured travel in the US and read the Times.

The Doody family - readers of the Mirror and fans of Spain - got the judges’ vote mainly because of a combination of pithy eloquence, commonsense and humour.
It’s an armoury they are likely to need in the coming year. Their role involves up to 30 weekends of activity spread throughout the year during which they will feature in advertising and PoS material, as well as making public appearances and taking part in promotional and marketing initiatives for the brand.

McCarthy adds two other notes of caution. Building on the current fascination for reality TV could be dangerous, he warns, as public interest seems to be on the wane. “Consumers may come to see the family as celebrities and look at them rather than the brand,” he adds. “And if you take someone who’s ordinary and make them extraordinary, haven’t you lost the reason for using them in the first place?”