Consumer Insights · Media Strategy · Brand Planning | Los Angeles, CA

Twinkies’ 15 Minutes of Fame Hit 14:57—Now What?

Last month, I ate the first Twinky (Twinkie?) of my adult life. Actually, perhaps my life, period. It appeared in a brainstorm I was participating in, and I was practically dared to try it. Feeling the lingering effects of years of after-school specials, I was leery about succumbing to peer pressure, but I cracked that individual plastic pack and took a bite. The cake inside was spongy, a little stickier than I expected, and indistinctly sweet. The filling…creamy, reminded me of Cool Whip, though it was designed to be stable at room temperature for roughly 1,000x as long. I didn’t exactly dislike it. If offered another one some day, I might accept. I might not. Overall, though, I don’t really care. And I’m starting to get irritated at the suggestion that I should care. 


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Christian Cable:

For most of my life, if I was aware of the Twinkies brand, it was in the context of jokes about how preservative-loaded they were. Twinkies being the only thing to survive the apocalypse—that kind of thing. Then, with last year’s slightly disturbing, but mostly overlooked, battle with the employee union that led to bankruptcy, Twinkies suddenly became top-of-mind. People were bemoaning the loss of the sweet treats on social and in news media. Knowing my generation’s propensity for faux-nostalgia, I wrote it off as a yearning for a recognized childhood brand, rather than disappointment at losing something adults actually eat regularly. I hadn’t heard the word “Twinky” in the preceding decade.  I refused to believe my friends had hordes of these things stashed away in their cupboards, and just never talked about them publicly. Every product has a loyalist or 2,000, but I wasn’t buying the mass outpouring of grief. But when it became clear, this spring, that Twinkies were headed back to shelves, I knew a spike was coming.

Call it the Sharknado Effect. Like the unassuming snack cake, bad SyFy network films have been a reality of life for a long time. They have a certain cultural cachet. They probably have loyalists and connoisseurs, because everything does (see: Twinkies, above). And the rest of us may catch a flick, or more likely, 20 minutes of one, every once in a while when we’re bored.  But they really are junk movies, and ultimately, we tend to lose interest and channel surf to greener pastures. I’m sensing an analogy brewing. 

What made Sharknado different from, say, Frankenfish or Mansquito, wasn’t a giant leap in quality or anything. It wasn’t a cultural groundswell. The confluence of tornado season and Discovery Channel’s Shark Week had little to no effect. Simply put, they ran an effective social campaign. It worked so well that even though we all did exactly what we normally do for SyFy movies (didn’t actually watch it), we felt compelled to catch up via OnDemand in the next few days. Even I watched my mandatory 20 minutes. There were even some cinema showings. But back to Twinkies.

For, you see, Twinkies’ “Sweetest Comeback” had the same net effect as SyFy’s campaign. It was effective in making us care, at least momentarily, about a product that really isn’t distinct or valuable enough to care about on its own. I’m fairly certain I can go to a whole career’s-worth of brainstorms without ever seeing another Twinky again, unless there happen to be some leftovers from the aforementioned box. SyFy delivered some unexpectedly good ratings, but there’s no particular reason to think Pythonquake or Stegasauricane or whatever they come out with next will be able to gain the same kind of traction, as the tactic loses its novelty to social media users. I certainly think it’s a stretch to think of this as a sustainable way to take their movies viral consistently. Likewise, where do those little yellow cakes go from here?

According to AdWeek, they’re rebranding for 2o-something men. I guess we are the group most likely to indiscriminately shovel junk food into our bodies, so I see the logic. But Twinkies’ bread and butter has always been the other group of indiscriminate junk-food-shovelers, children (which, if you ask my girlfriend, is basically interchangeable with millennial men). Well—children, and their time-strapped but disposable-income-rich mothers. But women seeking a convenient kids’ snack don’t seem as “loyalist-y” as young men, do they? After all, we drink Pabst and pay $78 for a pair of Levi’s. We eat this ironic/nostalgic brand loyalty stuff up, right? 

I doubt it, and it seems like they’d have an awfully hard time walking the nostalgic junk food/acceptable thing to feed your kid tightrope. I’m thinking the Twinky folks should probably look at this PR bonanza as manna from processed food heaven and be thankful for the initial awareness bump for their new launch. Beyond that, keep doing what kid snack brands do. Awareness, consideration, trial. A coupon here, a TV spot about how Twinkies aren’t a hydrogenated soybean oil bomb there. A push into being a millennial brand, particularly a millennial male brand, just seems like they’re trying to extend the 2013 sugar high a step too far.

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