How Special K Became a Social Media Star

Marketers across all industries are buzzing about social media these days, but no one has really figured it out, said Jose-Alberto Duenas, Kellogg’s marketing vp of ready-to-eat cereals in the U.S. Though digital and social media may soon overtake the 30-second spot as the most popular form of advertising, brands still have a lot of experimenting and learning to do in this space. That’s what Kellogg is doing with social media campaigns on its Special K, Pop-Tarts and Frosted Mini-Wheats brands. It’s also teamed up with Ashton Kutcher’s Katalyst Media and Feeding America to raise up to $1 million for hunger relief. Efforts like the latter program have attracted 210,000-plus in Facebook fans. Duenas, who considers Special K to be one of the company’s forerunners in social media, chatted with Brandweek. Excerpts are below.

Brandweek: Food companies like Kellogg have been playing up the strength of their brands as consumers continue to eat in more during a recession. What role does social media play in that strategy?
Jose-Alberto Duenas: Right now, consumers are eating at home a lot more than they did compared to probably the previous five-year period, and establishing a long-term positive emotional connection with consumers is very important. [Social media] allows them to access our brands and have the opportunity to have a point of view on what the brand stands for. That is a key component of [our efforts to] build a dialogue with them.

BW: What are some recent successes you’ve had in this space? Any particular efforts come to mind?
JD: Yes. Special K, [for instance], has been the pioneer in our portfolio in terms of venturing into new media. We’ve had really good results on [Special K social media] programs that we ran in the past. Special K is a great partner for women looking to have easy access to tips around weight-loss management. It has established a really strong relationship with consumers using this brand as a result of that dialogue. We’ve used forums in the past, but we’re doing a lot more of that now in social media.

BW: What about Pop-Tarts? (The brand is holding a Pop Art contest right now, with a social media tie-in, in which the consumer who designs the best T-shirt gets a chance to meet artist Burton Morris.)
JD: Pop-Tarts has been recruiting fans at a really impressive pace. (The brand has 776,000+ Facebook fans.) [With Pop-Tarts], it’s a celebration during breakfast when consumers talk about how they eat their breakfast. It’s a very lighthearted, fun dialogue we’re having with consumers.

BW: Special K was one of the “pioneers” in Kellogg’s foray into digital and social media. Why so?
JD: It has to do with the strength of the brand at the moment we started to build our programs using digital and social media. With Special K, it’s our strongest cereal brand. It has a very strong relationship with consumers…The brand enables a dialogue around women and our key consumers, which revolves around weight management. You see a lot of the dialogue in this space that uses the brand as a platform for the interaction among consumers as they give each other tips and encouragement. One of the things we discovered about women when they go through a weight-management [stage] is support and encouragement from peers is very important, and social media is a great place for consumers to do that.

BW: So, you can’t just take any brand and put it in social media?
JD: You have to start from a really strong base. You can’t, in a way, start from scratch with social media, especially because consumers have to have a certain level of engagement with the brand. With Special K, we know the brand already has that level of communication and emotional engagement with consumers, so we’ve given them a new way to interact with the brand. That was the right first step. [With Pop-Tarts], we were building off a very strong, already established relationship with kids. Kids have been using digital media, but Pop-Tart’s [foray into social media] also opened up [the brand’s] target in terms of having a conversation with teens and moms, which came later.

BW: How far along is Kellogg in its approach to social media? Has the company really figured it out, or is it still in the experimental stages?
JD: If you found someone out there who has figured out digital media, let me know. I think everyone is experimenting now, and it’s how fast you learn that is going to give you an edge [over others] out there. Everything we learn and try to do here is about taking a very disciplined approach—from learning to experimenting, but making sure we [derive] best practices out of the experiences. One of the things we don’t want to do is just expand the learning curves across all brands. We try to be very disciplined across all of our brands and how we learn. We’re taking a very humble approach: This is a new type of media, and we want to make sure we are learning as much as we can. The 30-second ad has been there for 30 years; digital media, less than 10. Everyone is learning in this space.
BW: What’s the greatest insight you’ve learned from using the digital/social media space?
JD: It’s an enabler of the relationship between consumers and the brand. It strengthens what you have. It gives you an opportunity to listen to what consumers think and feel about the brand, and also, one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is “transparency is key.” That’s basically because you are moving from “my brand” or “your brand” to, actually, “everyone’s brand.” And that is a very interesting [transition].