The Butler’s Back: Brings Jeeves Out Of Retirement

imageInterActive Corp’s decision to kill Ask Jeeves’ iconic butler, a year after buying the search site in 2005, must rank as one of the weirdest decisions in brand marketing. So now the site is undoing that strategy and reverting to its original name – in the UK only for now., as it has been known since the buyout, has commissioned Tale Of Despereaux maker Framestore to reimagine the original hand-drawn character, who first debuted in 1996, in 3D. Europe MD Cesar Mascaraque told me the move is a response to research, conducted in Birmingham after’s October relaunch, found aided brand awareness at 72 percent for the current site – but 83 percent for the deceased butler. Jeeves’ resurrection is also designed to consolidate Ask’s focus on natural-language search questions, rather than queries alone.

Mascaraque declined to call Jeeves’ earlier retirement a mistake but is in little doubt: “When I told family I decided to leave Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and join, I got a funny face and ‘who are they?’ It’s only when I say ‘the old Ask Jeeves’ that people say ‘Ahh, of course’, and they smile. After three years of investing heavily in the brand and not at all in the Jeeves brand, still Ask Jeeves kicks ass in the UK. People miss the friendly touch that Jeeves brought to the site – our users have clearly told us they want him back.”

The company is publishing Jeeves’ supposed “travel diary” from his three years away. And they might well wonder. When he removed the name (supposedly because some people couldn’t spell “Jeeves”), then Ask CEO Steve Berkowitz said: “If some people are upset about the butler going away, so be it – as more people come to our site and are satisfied with the results they get, they are going to forget the butler.” In that time, however, Ask’s UK comScore (NSDQ: SCOR) reach has fallen to 20 percent – more than MSN on 18 percent and Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) on 17 percent, but still small-fry compared to Google’s 92 percent.

Marketing relaunch: IAC (NSDQ: IACI) is stumping up for a “multi-million dollar” marketing campaign – going across TV, radio, print and online – that will take advantage of currently depressed advertising prices. It will start Monday with a week-long awareness drive, leading to a second phase of both in-to-break and out-of-break TV spots, contextual to shows (ie. ads against Hell’s Kitchen will promo questions like “Why do onions make you cry?“). “The best time to invest is when the media is cheap,” Mascaraque said.

Jeeves lives socially: Much like the Compare The Meerkat campaign’s star Aleksandr Orlov, Jeeves – named after the PG Wodehouse novel character – will also have a character presence on Twitter and Facebook. Mascaraque: “We expect people that use Twitter will interact with Jeeves in a friendly way more than asking search questions – not “Am I pregnant?”, more “Hey, how have you been?” And it could be merely part of that campaign, but Mascaraque says Ask also commissioned Saville Row tailor Gieves And Hawkes to dress the new-look butler.

Jeeves will sit on the right-hand side of the homepage and search results pages, from where he will recommend related results and services via a “Jeeves Suggests” feature. Mascaraque said, after joining 18 months ago, Ask in Europe has improved search relevance, reduced results from 1.5 seconds to under half a second and cleaned up results pages.