When Hostess Twinkies return to store shelves next month, they’ll epitomize one of branding’s rarest feats: a return from the dead. But while the snack’s resurgence (courtesy of a $410 million fire-sale buyout by Apollo Global Management) will doubtless make snack hounds happy, the legendary brand still has its work cut out for it. Indeed, according to observers, after the hoopla fades, Twinkies may well face a kind of branding Catch-22. Hardcore fans aren’t enough in number to sustain the snack food in perpetuity, while its troublesome nutrition label (220 mg of sodium in one cake?) may well be a hard sell for younger, health-conscious buyers. So while today’s story is that Twinkies are back, tomorrow’s may well be: How long will they stay?
“The biggest obstacle is that Twinkies are not exactly a good candidate for a millennial consumer,” said Stuart Leslie, president of brand design and innovation firm 4sight Inc. “Meanwhile, their nostalgic consumer demographic is getting old and health conscious. It’s going to be a tough sell.”
Of course, there’s no question that Twinkies have a devoted following—a big one. When labor troubles plunged Hostess into bankruptcy last November, unplugging the ovens that had been baking the “Golden Sponge Cake With Creamy Filling” since 1930, legions of hardcore fans howled in disbelief, some of them even launching a “Save the Twinkie” Facebook page. “We love our Twinkies and, though I’m not sure why, it is a solid relationship,” said Steve Ettlinger, whose 2007 book Twinkie Deconstructed scrutinized the Twinkie’s 37 oft-baffling ingredients (anyone know what sodium acid pyrophosphate is?). “There’s nostalgia, sex and loyalty all wrapped up in that plastic cover,” Ettlinger said.
Yep, and they taste good, too. Which is why Hostess is obviously betting on nostalgia to carry the day—at least for now. Everything about the resurgent Twinkies (box design, cake recipe, even the $3.99 price tag) will be exactly like before. “The decision to keep the packaging and product consistent with what [the] consumer loved was an obvious one,” said Dave Lubeck, vp of Bernstein-Rein, the advertising agency of record that Hostess announced just yesterday. “There was no question that consumers wanted the product they knew and loved back.”
But now that the Twinkie is back, some marketers say it has its work cut out for it. While Twinkies purportedly sold 500 million cakes annually and were absent from stores for less than a year, that was enough time for pretender brands including Cloud Cakes, Dreamies and Bingles to bite off some of Twinkies’ market share. “As a brand, one thing you don’t want is your customers trying alternatives,” said Allen Adamson, managing director of marketing consultancy Landor’s New York office. “They might say, ‘If I can’t see or taste the difference, why am I paying the difference?’” Adamson added that Twinkies’ real challenge won’t be winning back “old friends,” but “figuring out how to make it fun and get younger consumers to connect.”
Bernstein-Rein is quite aware of this fact, planning some sweeping changes in Twinkieland. Starting with a new tagline on the box, “The sweetest comeback in the history of ever,” Lubeck promises that his agency will “leverage the nostalgia associated with the Hostess brand and, at the same time, reintroduce it with a voice that’s more contemporary and an attitude that’s bolder and more relevant to today’s consumers.” What’s that mean? A full array of digital, social media, guerrilla and traditional advertising efforts, including a Vine video-sharing effort built on the theme of “Prepare Your Cakeface.”
Perhaps the most ambitious, millennial-molded idea is to make Twinkies healthy—or, well, a little less like munching on the periodic table. Daren Metropoulos, principal of Metropoulos & Co., one of Hostess’ new co-owners, recently told the AP that low-sugar, gluten-free and low-sodium varieties of Twinkies are under consideration. That would be ambitious change, yet even here Hostess must proceed carefully, according to Josh Cohen, CEO of interactive marketing firm Pearl Media. “If we look at brand history with, say, the New Coke debacle, people across America were shouting, ‘Don’t mess with the taste of my soft drink.’ Certainly, the same principle applies to Twinkies’ reintroduction.”
Buddy Ketchner, president of brand strategy firm Sterling-Rice Group, agrees. “Twinkies fans, who cleared the shelves completely when they heard the products were being discontinued, will be expecting the original and will be extra sensitive to any change to the product.” At the same time, he said, Twinkies would do well to rip a page from Oreo’s playbook, which has found a way to keep the century-old cookie largely intact while also offering variations that keep things interesting. “Holiday-colored cream-filled ones, Twinkie ice cream, mini Twinkies in cup-holder packages, co-branded flavors—the possibilities are endless,” Ketchner said.
For the time being, then, Twinkies can bask in the glow of having made a rare and heroic comeback—but industry pros will be carefully watching the brand’s next moves. Of one thing, all seem agreed: While the famous sponge cake has a strong market position, its true golden age probably lay back in the days when nobody cared what polysorbate 60 was. “It’s hard to imagine an ‘improved’ Twinkie in any event,” Leslie said. “It doesn’t have the credibility. It’s the poster child for unhealthy food.” Added Ettlinger: “I suspect that the new ones will never sell as well as the old ones.” Adamson agreed: “Twinkies aren’t going to get the same share they had on the day they left,” he said. “They can’t go back to the future.”