Snack Attack!

Who doesn’t love a good snack? Salty or sweet, a good snack is satisfying–except when you can no longer get it. Recently, I overheard my kids discussing their Halloween loot. My son had only gotten one Rice Krispie treat (his favorite snack!) in his trick-or-treat bag but knew his sister had one, too.  That’s when I heard: “Can I borrow your Rice Krispie treat?”

We all knew that “borrow” wasn’t the word he was after. As you can imagine, we all had a great laugh because we knew she’d never get it back. Nevertheless, she listened and understood what he was after and handed over the snack. As he gobbled it down, I started thinking about how this scenario has played out in real life and how listening can ensure a happy customer (or little brother). It wasn’t so much his communication that mattered; it was her response.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we take a look at two treats and see what happens when a couple of campaigns–one modern and one retro–threaten consumer snacking habits. See what happens when consumers bite back.

Retro: New Coke

In 1985, the Coca-Cola Company introduced a new formulation of its iconic drink, the first rebranding in 99 years. The invention was an attempt to stem slumping sales against competitor Pepsi. New Coke was introduced with great fanfare by the company.

The new drink was supposed to be cheaper to make, smoother and  sweeter. Needless to say,  it didn’t go down well. The effort failed when tastemakers failed to adopt the new formulation and shared their displeasure far and wide.

The backlash came quickly and furiously. Corporate offices received numerous phone calls and letters in an effort to voice displeasure. The organization noted a 275% increase in call volume each day for more than two months. The scarcity caused by the lack of access to the familiar flavor, caused customers to hoard it rather than drink a product they didn’t like. In The Real Thing: Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company, it was noted that even the bottlers for the drink demanded a meeting with the parent company (Hays, 2004).

One of the first rules of strategic communications is to know your audience. Coca-Cola missed this point. Everyone wanted a return to the original formulation; everyone that is, except Pepsi which was able to capitalize on the blunder to reinforce its brand amid the blowback in the press (Hays, 2004).

In a campaign hailed by Time magazine as one of the “greatest marketing blunders,”  the company failed to recognize the national nostalgia many people held for the popular drink.

The Real Thing at my local convenience store. Photo by Lesley Bruinton

Through critical listening, Coca-Cola found its way back to the real thing for fans of the product: the original mix. It only took 78 days to herald the return. Fittingly, the announcement of the elixir’s return was a breaking news announcement during the daytime soap opera General Hospital.

Modern: Twinkies

Time for nostalgic noshing? Photo by Lesley Bruinton

A declining economic forecast meant Hostess had to do something. Hostess, the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, was heading towards bankruptcy–again. The 2012 bankruptcy filing would be its second in three years. Debt and rising costs were to blame. Less than six months after the bankruptcy filing, Hostess broke the news to fans on Twitter:

Despite a 150-year relationship with consumers, the response was swift and severe with lots of backlash on social media. Couple that with news stories that Twinkies may soon be off the shelves for good and only a distant memory. The scarcity principle kicked in and folks soon begin filling their baskets with the creme-filled cakes.

It was clear that consumers were not ready to give up the sweet treat. A savvy investor heard the demand online and responded. Smelling an opportunity, Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo bought the iconic brand for $410 million, which extended the shelf life of the famed food.

Twenty-four months after the brand’s reboot, the investors were making dough, and in the process, confirmed its own prophesied return to the market as “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever.”

Final Thoughts.

With any strategic communication plan, there should be a component dedicated to crisis communications. The strategically-minded public relations practitioner should have the opportunity to ask the question “What if this doesn’t go as planned? How will we respond?” It is apparent that no one asked those questions ahead of time as in both cases it took months for a response which addressed the consumer concerns.

Phone calls. Letters. Tweets. They all share the same trait in these two examples: communication from the consumer. But it wasn’t the action in either case that it noteworthy, it is the reaction. In order for effective communication to have the message sent must be received and responded to. In Listening Effectively, the author notes “Responding, then, is a form of feedback that completes the communication transaction” (Kline, 1996, p. 26). In both cases, the product’s maker responded by reviving the brand.

Ironically, the cost-saving decisions by both companies caused more problems than they solved and alienated their respective audiences. However, it was by critically listening to consumers both companies were able to positively affect the bottom line as consumers flocked back. The critical listening allowed both the Coca-Cola Company and the Hostess brand to understand the pathos of its respective consumers. In both cases, the companies heard the pathos of fear and through their response were able to solidify loyalty.

Although one campaign played out in the social media era and one did not, both have been able to capitalize on emerging technology. Hostess created a social media campaign to allow customers to take credit for Twinkie’s return, by encouraging the retweeting of a graphic saying “I Saved the Twinkie.”

Today, the Coca-Coca Cola Company has embraced the sour segment of its history and brought it into the 21st century by inviting consumers to share their New Coke experiences, which include hoarding the classic version in favor of the update.

Pretty sweet, huh?



Hays, C. L. (2004). The real thing : Truth and power at the Coca-Cola Company(1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Kline, J. A., & Air University (U.S.). (1996). Listening effectively. Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press.

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