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What Twinkies Can Teach Marketers About Comebacks and Social Branding

Box of Twinkies

Those who know me well know that in addition to being severely over-caffeinated, I also possess one of the world's best sweet tooths. So when I heard of the return of the Twinkie, well let me just say a certain Forbes contributor of Polish & Italian descent did a nice happy dance.

Of course, in addition to wanting to fulfill my sugary desires, I was also very intrigued from a marketing, advertising and branding perspective.

This was a big deal, right?

I mean we're talking about an iconic brand here.

Well since their return to shelves a little over a month ago, their return to glory has been going well so far as documented by Forbes contributor Michael Stone in his recent article In A Cronut-Obsessed World, Twinkies Make An Impressive Comeback.

"Lucky for Twinkies, Americans’ obsession with hybrid-baked goods may have helped fuel what is shaping out to be an impressive product comeback," writes Stone.

Yes, he very well may have been referring to yours truly specifically with his "Americans’ obsession with hybrid-baked goods" line.

He astutely adds, however, that "For a brand that has been around since 1930, nostalgia can be a very powerful marketing tool" and makes reference to the "subtle, yet fairly drastic, changes to its product and marketing strategy."

It is under that guise - the changes to their marketing strategy and its use of nostalgia, that I reached out to Erich Joachimsthaler, a former Harvard professor, author of over 40 articles & two books on brand strategy and the CEO of Vivaldi Partners Group, a global strategy consulting firm.

I wanted to discuss with him the advantage that Hostess has with it's legacy and how they can play the nostalgia card to their benefit via social media.

Steve Olenski: What are some of things Hostess has done right in re-introducing and re-engaging the Twinkies brand with its fans in your opinion?

Erich Joachimsthaler: There is no news about the brand, so they made the comeback the news itself. There is no improvement in the product, no innovation, no story for the consumer. So, saying, hey we are back is all they could do now. This taps into pent-up consumer demand, perhaps about some misguided feelings of nostalgia. So they made the best out of a not very good situation.

They have done well by building on key drivers of social currency mainly conversation, advocacy and affiliation (#cakeface instagram, etc). That is, the comeback campaign sought to activate loyalists and fans through various efforts on social networks. The good part about this effort is that it stretches the marketing dollars because it creates more visibility and awareness for the re-launch. At best, the effort creates some awareness to consideration conversion. The problem with this effort is that it does not lead toward purchase and loyalty.

The category requires constant and always-on top of mind marketing/PR buzz and it is hard to sustain such effort on social channels alone, and media advertising which is relatively expensive and not sustainable. I would say, it is impossible in today’s media cluttered environment, and consumers’ who tend to have ever shorter attention spans.

Olenski: How can Hostess ensure this (Twinkies return) will be a sustained effort and not just a fad that will eventually fade?

Joachimsthaler: Don’t be misled by social media metrics, likes, fans, and followers. It has about 650,000 likes on Facebook, compare this to more than 17 million for Nutella and 34 million for Oreo for example. Don’t measure the re-launch and sustained success on these metrics. Sustainable success will require driving consideration to purchase conversion and purchase to loyalty conversion. Those are the social currency metrics that really matter.

Right now, there is a high chance that this re-launch is something rather short-lived. It is nice to remember the good old days, how silly we were, but we have lived on, our food choices are much better today. Nostalgia does not carry the brand for too long forward. The brand is a reminder for people that times have changed, and we have changed. Hostess runs counter to food trends of today.

The key success is their sampling efforts, getting the people to try the product that will create purchase conversion and loyalty. The key metrics to look after is purchase following trial or sampling and repeat purchase.

There is an illusion that consumer purchases can be sustained through emotional branding and love branding, today. This is Madison Avenue’s snake oil salesmanship and hucksterism of yesteryears. This re-launch will prove that those times are over. Again nostalgia will not carry this brand forward. Remember, Twinkies wasn’t built on nostalgia in the first place, it was built on relevance in consumers’ daily life, part of the sandwich box of Americans in a time long past.

The brand will have to again become part of consumers’ daily life, insert itself into their daily life, and become part and parcel of the daily routines, what I call becoming part of the 1,440 minutes that we all live from midnight to midnight.

What will drive trial, purchase and loyalty then? The answer does not lie in social and digital efforts, the answer lies in sampling, sampling and sampling and getting consumers to trial and purchase.

For Hostess, the job has just only started. Beyond the initial buzz, they need to innovate in meaningful ways so that sampling translates into purchase and loyalty. So far, there is no substantial brand promise driven by relevant and meaningful innovations to consumers. That’s worrisome.

Olenski: What does the term "social branding" mean

Joachimsthaler: The term is confusing since social branding has always been about applying branding principles to social causes, church membership or, for example when Easter Seals using branding principles to beef up their donor strategies. Social branding was a good thing in the old days, it was about trying to figure out how you can sell brotherhood like soap.

Today, social branding is no longer something special and in a few years, social branding will be an irrelevant term just like eBusiness is today. We just completed a study on the always-on consumer (nearly 45% of US population today). It shows that nearly half of Americans are on social networks or online at least three times a day, working from three different devices (ipad, pc, mobile phone, for example), and doing this from three different locations or contexts (home, work, while driving, etc.). This segment of Americans was just 11 percent or so in 2010 and it is growing in leaps and bounds.

The problem today is that social branding is mostly pitched as ordinary PR on steroids. The advertising world has appropriated the term as amplifying existing messages (it used to be called PR), or creating earned media (that also used to be called PR), or creating consumer engagement (that also used to be called PR). These things are all about tactics and most efforts suck.

Social branding to me is all about social business. It is about taking consideration and advantage of the changing consumer behaviors (their new behaviors in today’s digital and social worlds), enabling and enhancing their lives and creating real value in their lives by applying the new technologies, social, digital, mobile or Big Data if you care for today’s buzzword.

Olenski: What are some things brands should do and/or not do when it comes to social branding?

Joachimsthaler: Our research shows that consumers don’t like brands to engage with them over social channels, and those that do really want to get discounts or deals.  Most of the early efforts on PR-driven social branding will decrease in effectiveness, much like where banner ads have gone.

Here are some suggestions of what to do:

Look for new ways of creating real and substantial valueto consumers. Examples: BMW or Burberry. Burberry in targeting the young digital consumer, a consumer likely not to be seen in its flagship store buying from its high-end Prorsum line, made videos and images of its new collections available on Twitter and Facebook, even before the actual collections were shown on stage in fashion shows in Milan and London. Doing so created enormous social currency for Burberry. Social currency in terms of a chanced of advocate for the latest collection (advocacy), to provide instant feedback to Burberry (conversation), and a chance to express ones fashion opinions to others like Anna Wintour does for Vogue magazine (identity).

Today, it has 15 million Facebook fans and more than 1.5 million Twitter followers, and, critically, all of them can purchase straight off the videos online whenever or wherever they are (utility value in terms of convenience and access to latest fashion before others do).

Incorporate these new values into your brand promise and culture. Burberry’s CEO Angela Ahrendts has made it known inside and outside the company that her intent is to evolve Burberry from a merge fashion house to a media company. She seeks to change the way a fashion house interacts with consumers at every major touch point. I believe such vision expressed by a leader helps understand the organization how it is changing. It fosters a new culture around social branding.

Another example: The new line of BMW cars launched two weeks ago, the all-electric i3, really tells the social branding story in a nutshell. The i3 is infused with a set of social apps, tools, and technologies that changes the entire driving experience. Think FourSquare, Zipcar, Facebook and AirBnB all combined and designed to integrate smoothly with customers’ own smartphones.

Replace your just-in-case social listening system, your five-year strategic planning processes, and your campaign-centric marketing efforts with an AlwaysOn (JIT) brand growth and innovation system.

Most companies have invested enormously into a social media monitoring or listening system, they did so at the behest of technology companies and social, digital, mobile or big data gurus who proclaimed that such systems are absolutely necessary to listen in to consumers’ conversations. We are also told that such social systems are important because they impact new product development, marketing, communications, sales and every other function that connects consumers with a brand or business in real time.

The big promise is that organizations will have to change, and this means also changing tried-and-proven processes such as its strategic planning processes or its three-advertising campaigns a year brouhaha to communicate with consumers.

There is some truth to the hype. We live in a time where consumers’ perceptions or preferences can shift daily or even hourly. Companies need to accelerate and speed up, some need to uproot their strategic planning processes, some need to change their campaign-centric efforts, some need to listen to social data, other need to leverage consumers’ digital browsing data. But, there is also a lot of water in the ocean that one cannot drink.

In the same way, companies should choose what they need carefully and strategically, to what degree it really needs to be speed up, to what degree it needs to operate in real-time, and be always on. Instead of flailing around in digi-land with everyone in the organization setting up listening posts, everyone trying desperately to engage with consumers, and prove social media savvy-ness by posting videos and blog posts, companies need to be a lot smarter about it.

Here are several guidelines: first, focus on the end goal in mind. Nothing beats revenue growth. Focus on sales and work backwards from there.

Second, think big, start small, scale fast. Integrate different sources across touch points and channels require big thinking but this does not necessarily mean massive investments. You can start small. Tracking the actual sales from vendors is a simple first step, this can be done via mobile-enabled tracking today; the test in a single city or geography over a few weeks. This creates real-time data that a company can use to improve sales and delivery routes. With a proven model, you can scale up, and begin integrating actual consumer data collected through social monitoring for example.

Third, understand the power of real-time information. Making your business and brand management social is not comparable to your last CRM project or ERP implementation effort. Daily vendor sales data can help to adjust sales, delivery, logistics and marketing and promotional programs immediately. Most brands, though, may not need daily information, they can spot check information quarterly, or only every six months. Use information to stay current not to overwhelm or mislead.

Finally, build your AlwaysOn brand growth and innovation system which feeds these real-time data from the market into your brand management processes. This will require technology and brand cockpits to visualize data but don’t be fooled by the “shiny object.” That is, the functionality of a cool brand dashboard or communications command center.

Every technology or software seems to invent their own metrics that frill up brand dashboards. Instead focus on real-time data from consumers or deep consumer insights and integrate these real-time data into the strategy process so that brand strategy and marketing plans can be designed, optimized and executed to achieve the end goal: to drive the revenue growth of your business or brand.

That’s what social branding is all about.

Box of Twinkies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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