The Unknown Artist Who Made the Jollibee You Know And Love
Wilfredo Villano is 82 years old. On the phone, he speaks extra loud, as if unassured that his message is getting through or unconvinced that he can hear the other end well. Maybe both. He speaks with the affable, affectionate tone of a doting grandparent who always reminds you to be safe to and look both ways before crossing the street. But Willie's mind is still remarkably sharp: he remembers, for instance, how he spent perfecting the busy little bee that we love today.
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We all know how Jollibee started: It was a franchise of an ice cream shop, but customers were eating more of the original hot meals than the dessert. Soon, the ice cream shop became Jolibe, and even sooner, it grew—so much so that by 1968 its owner Tony Tan Caktiong hired a consultant Manuel Lumba to take the enterprise to the next level.
The marketing expert set to work, observing which dishes were potential headliners and which needed a little extra work. He knew that the brand needed an icon, something to illustrate what it stood for.He settled on a bee, inspired by the own owner's hard work, Tony Velasquez’s Nanong Pandak, and his own daughter's cartoons. It was crude, but effective. Best of all, it had potential. Someone just needed to smoothen out rough the edges.
While Jollibee was just gaining its wings and earning its stripes, Willie was a working student taking up Fine Arts and Advertising in the University of Santo Tomas. Adept in many genres of art and design, he found himself creating scale models for an architect until his professor referred him to Colegio de San Juan de Letran to create religious portraits for churches in the vein of Michelangelo. And so, he worked during the morning and scheduled his classes in the afternoon.
When a job opened up for him in advertising, Willie put down his paints to pursue his dream. The priests in Letran, however, wanted to keep him on—so much that they offered to send him to Rome. Wille, however, chose the path of pragmatism. "I decided to push through with my advertising career as I knew traveling abroad will be difficult for me as I am handicapped due to polio," he recalls.
Witnessing the demand of his chosen field firsthand, Willie left school all together. "Though [unable] to gain my degree, I was able to earn my spot on the advertising field as I know how to draw, sketch in multiple mediums such as oil and charcoal. I’ve painted live portraits with models posing," he adds.. Advertising introduced to clients such as the Ayala Corporation, Insular Life, Makati Commercial Center, Makati Supermart, Unimart, Radiowealth, Daf Philippines, Honiron Philppines, RC Cola and more.
He also collected awards from bodies such as the Philippines Association of National Advertisers (PANA), among others.
In the late '70s, Willie was designing medicine boxes as an art director for American pharmaceuticals company Sterling Winthrop Inc. A former colleague named Toots Perez was working for Jollibee and he recruited Willie to refresh the brand's look, including updating the logo and mascot.
"It was very challenging," Willie tells Esquire of his sideline. He was working for only P450 a month so the job was crucial not quite for the added income but for the opportunities that it would bring—should his work be a success. "It was a daunting task as this was a client I have never worked for, but having worked with Toots for years, we were confident we would be able to deliver what Tony (Tan Caktiong) wanted."
Armed with vestiges from Lumba's imagination—a bee with a chef's hat and a burger—Willie set out to work. "We wanted the bee to appeal more to the children. Jolly, that was the only look needed to represent the brand," he explained.
Willie read a book on bees, looked at how Disney drew their characters, especially Mickey Mouse (the influence can be seen on Jollibee's gloves), and observed real honeybees in action. He visited a nearby elementary school and had the toughest critics assess his work. The children opted for red to slightly orange hues and also picked out a friendlier font to accompany the happy bee.
According to the company's anniversary coffee table book, "The Jolly Bee that had till then as a slender, serious-looking waiter with 'apian features,' Villano transformed into a smiling, puffy-cheeked chef, radiating with good nature." Its promotion from waiter to chef seemingly symbolizing the leap the mascot has made in terms of its appearance.
"The end result was the 'flying bee' with the index finger lifted to symbolize 'No. 1' and pointing 'to the world'," he tells Esquire. The literal Jolly Bee was rechristened Jollibee. Willie had a gut feeling about how big Jollibee was going to get and the pose, in hindsight, served as a sort of premonition.
Soon after, Willie resigned from Sterling Winthrop Inc. and worked as a freelancer, maintaining Jollibee as his main client. "We developed advertising materials for the marketing department of the different regions of Jollibee. Posters, streamers, leaflet designs and other items such as promotional games like the Jollibee Roleta," he said. He even remembers taking part in designing a baby Jollibee, which was never released.
The time came again when Jollibee needed another update, the same circumstance that led Willie to his most memorable work. Though another firm from Singapore was given the task, Willie was asked to review and approve the final design.
"Tony always asked if I had seen the designs and would recommend his team to reach out to me for feedback," Willie explains. When the Jollibee honcho was dissatisfied with the firm's work, Willie made corrections on the spot.
"I have always seen Jollibee’s face as a 'Mona Lisa smile'," he says. "A minor adjustment like the angle of the curves, the thickness of the lines, can really make a huge difference on the overall result."
All Jollibee revisions up until the current 40th iteration still have Willie's hand: "Up to this day at 82 years old, I am still offering my services to Jollibee whenever it needs my consultancy on the icon." President and CEO of Jollibee Foods Corp. Ernesto Tanmantiong makes sure that he continues to have a hand in the mascot's look.
"I am very proud and happy that I was given the opportunity to be on the project. To design, draw and develop the iconic bee we see today," he tells Esquire. "To see one's work celebrated and admired is an artist’s measure of success."
Jollibee is nearly half as old as Willie, but if what he says is true, about success being judged for the timelessness of his work, then what he's done is create a lasting legacy that can't be measured in years.