What my dog taught me about Twinkies

What, you ask, can my dog Nigel teach us about Twinkies?  A lot – what’s a brand worth, that sort of thing.  This question is brought to mind by yesterday’s purchase of now-bankrupt Hostess Brands’ bread portfolio (including Wonder Bread, Nature’s Pride and others) by Flowers Foods.   Sale of the Hostess dessert cakes brands (including Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, Yodels, Suzie Qs and more) is expected to close within a few weeks.

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Well, Nigel is pretty bright, and he does provide perspective on the recent public agonizing over the potential disappearance of Twinkies.

You see, Nigel goes crazy for the ball when the humans play ping-pong at home.  After he beats us to a missed ball, he happily gives it up so the game can continue.  It seems Nigel loves the idea of having the ball in his mouth but doesn’t have much interest in chewing or eating it.  He likes the idea of the ball, not the ball itself.

In the same way, while many of us are emotionally attached to our experiences with Twinkies, and share in the grief of possibly losing them, it is unlikely that many of us are actually current Twinkie eaters or likely to suddenly become future eaters.

Twinkies is a powerful brand that is high in nostalgia (positive associations driven by past exposure) but unfortunately also one that has become quite low in relevance.  In an age where treats are increasingly either relatively good for you (e.g. 100 calorie packs) or utterly indulgent (e.g. gourmet cupcakes), and where consumers increasingly check ingredients, that retro golden sponge cake with vanilla creme filling is being squeezed from all sides.  Past efforts like reduced-fat Twinkies (of which I was a fan) or chocolate creme or banana Twinkies have generally not been successful – – they violate some aspect of the indulgent formula of the original.  So while the brand carries significant weight, the ability to convert that equity into cash is not a slam dunk — Twinkies loyalists are a particularly finicky (and shrinking) lot, and it’s not clear that there is a consumer franchise for the future.

What is the lesson?  Just because a brand is widely known and loved, doesn’t mean it can power future sales.  The winning bidder for the well-known Hostess snack brands will need to have assessed not only the net present value of the current franchises, but also the ability to extend these brands beyond current offerings to become more relevant to an audience that will generate long-term demand.

The successful repositionings of Old Spice and Cadillac from Dad targets to Son targets demonstrate that it’s very possible to recharge relevance, capture a new audience, and thus harvest latent equity.  The unsuccessful (and clumsily transparent) attempt to resuscitate Oldsmobile (remember?  “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile“) shows that there are no guarantees.  Kentucky Fried Chicken’s attempt to recast itself as less unhealthy (KFC) would probably be judged to have had moderate success – – the word ‘fried’ is decoupled from the brand, but we all know what goes on in there so there’s a limit to how far you can (and want to) go.

NostalgiaRelevanceTwinkies carries immediate and powerful associations and there are certainly potential avenues for the brand — perhaps traditional line extensions, perhaps co-branding, perhaps licensing the Twinkies brand aggressively to non-food products (clothing?  toys?  theme park ride?). The new owner will very carefully need to determine whether, and how, the brand that elicits such strong emotions might generate sufficient profits to justify the purchase.

To a great extent, it may depend on whether this old dog can learn new tricks.

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One response »

  1. So very true! The new owners will have their hands full. Any fundamental changes to the product to make it relevant to a new generation will result in an outcry from loyalists. Leaving it as it is leaves it less relevant to anyone else, may who have never ever bothered to taste it.

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