The latest development to emerge from the ANZ marketing department might be adorable but it's more than a pretty face.
Behind the merino fluff of the wooden character they've called Mr Humfreez is a clever contraption designed to let homeowners know when their home has become too humid or cold.
When the humidity rises too high, the horns of the ram unfurl and straighten, warning those in the vicinity that things aren't safe. And when the temperature drops beneath 18C, Humfreez's button nose takes on a bluish hue.
WEEKLY DOSE OF AD NEWS:
• Sign up for the AdBeat newsletter
While the quirky character may have the appearance of a stock standard piece of digital tech, the team at ad agency TBWA have actually developed a smart device in sheep's clothing powered by the natural environment and a bit of chemistry.
The hygroscopic horns are thinly sliced from Canadian wood and respond to even the slightest changes in the humidity of the air, and the nose has been painted with thermochromic ink – which in turn means batteries or USB cables aren't required.
The concept came about as a collaboration between TBWA in Auckland and a group of scientists at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who over the past decade have been studying how certain plant matter responds to the absorption of moisture from the atmosphere (hygroscopic morphology).
ANZ has already distributed around 100 Mr Humfreez to families around New Zealand as part of a beta testing phase and plans to roll it out more widely in the coming year.
The aim of all this is to draw attention to the company's Healthy Homes initiative, which includes a commitment of $100 million in interest-free loans (of up to $5000) to mortgage customers who want to increase the warmth or reduce the humidity of their homes.
Local elections: Voter turnout is a joke. Here's how to fix it
Situations vacant: Experienced cannabis growers wanted
ANZ's interest in this area isn't without merit, as indicated by 2018 data from Stats NZ showing 47 per cent of renters and 30 per cent of owner-occupiers had mould in their homes. The temperature was also a pressing issue, with 33 per cent of renters and 15 per cent of owner-occupiers saying their homes were always cold.
Just this week, the Tenancy Tribunal awarded $5000 to an Auckland woman, whose apartment was deemed unfit for human habitation due to dangerous mould levels.
The woman told the Herald that she started noticing health effects a week after moving into the home with her 16-month-old child.
"I was coughing a lot and having trouble breathing. My son was rubbing his eyes and coughing as well," she said.
• Mt Eden rental 'unsuitable for human habitation'
The question now is whether a product like that launched by ANZ can make a difference in the fight against such a widespread issue.
Philippa Howden-Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, says it's good to see an organisation with the clout of ANZ alerting New Zealanders to the importance of warm and dry homes but adds that it won't necessarily help those living in the worst housing conditions.
"I think it's cute, but it misses the point that families in the most need aren't in the position to take out a loan because they're struggling to pay the rent, buy food and make sure their kids have school lunches," Howden-Chapman tells the Herald.
"It's a nice-to-have, but we have to think of a more a societal response to this problem."
Howden-Chapman says a big step in the right direction came with the Government's passing of the Healthy Homes standards earlier this year, which require all property owners to guarantee their rentals are warm and dry.
She does, however, say that corporate New Zealand can play a role in taking this further by collaborating with Housing New Zealand to find solutions that help the most vulnerable members of society.
While she doesn't think Mr Humfreez will necessarily solve the problem, Howden-Chapman believes it was clever move to have the product targeted at children, given the influence they have on their parents.
"It's really designed to alert children to alerting their parents," she says, pointing out that kids are often the ones who suffer the most in cold homes.
"The problem really affects children. Not only do they get sick, but they also don't really want to bring people over to their homes if they're cold and mouldy. They often don't feel at home and they get embarrassed. One child we interviewed said his bedroom feels like Everest."
Is it good enough for Jacinda Ardern?
Wiktor Skoog, the TBWA design director behind the project, tells the Herald the team set a really high design objective from the beginning.
They knew from the outset that there were already digital devices in existence that could measure the conditions in the home, but they wanted to make something that families would feel happy displaying on the mantelpiece.
"We went into this wanting to design something that even Jacinda Ardern would want in her home," Skoog says.
"We didn't want to create just another piece of plastic."
He says it took about six months to get to this point but adds that the first seed of inspiration was planted much earlier when he visited an art installation in France that featured wooden sculptures responding to changes in the atmosphere.
"I don't know how to explain it," he says. "It's just how my mind works. I find people who are interesting and I get in touch with them. I just knew I had to speak to the people who were doing this."
Skoog says these are the types of people you don't read about on websites or in the media.
"When they've been written about, the moment is already gone. If you want to find people at the vanguard, you need to do some digging. They're never in the press. You have to have relationships with universities and you have to be curious."
He says this curiosity always informs his creative process and takes him to places that stretch beyond expected.
When ad agencies make products
It isn't new for ad agencies to make products for the clients. Even in New Zealand's banking industry, we've seen ASB do something similar with its bright yellow digital money box, Clever Kash.
The appeal, of course, is that a clever product can take a brand beyond the media minutes consumers are exposed to in a day. If the subtle ad is sitting on a coffee table, it removes the need to turn on the TV or flick through your newsfeed. And at a time when it's becoming more difficult to reach consumers in an increasingly fragmented media landscape, it's no surprise that brands are looking for different ways to reach their target market.
This is part of the reason why TBWA has launched a new section of its business called TBWA Make, which is dedicated to developing concepts and ideas that don't fit the usual definition of advertising.
The problem, however, that ad agencies just don't have a great track record at making products that really stick. Many have come before TBWA and many have failed.
TBWA chief executive Catherine Harris admits that her industry has served up a few duds in the past but explains the principles of this space shouldn't be any different to any other forms of advertising.
You have to have a reason for doing it, she says, explaining that there has to be a strategic rationale behind the decision to make something.
Harris says the biggest mistake agencies make is developing products that might be cool but don't offer anything beyond that.
"What you often have is product design happening very separately from brand experience and strategy, and only when you bring the two together do you get to a new space that's good for the client," she says.
It only works, she says, if it helps to solve a problem – however big or small that might be.