With the average cost of a prime ad slot in the Super Bowl hovering around $2.6 million, many advertisers pony up another mil just to produce a slick spot. (After all, 90 million pairs of eyeballs will be watching.) So it's all the more surprising that one of the '07 Bowl's most popular 30-second spots didn't cost a million dollars at all. Or even half of that. Or even a tenth.
The ad, in fact, cost less than 13 bucks-$12.79, to be exact.
Shooting took place in a shopping center parking lot in Cary, N.C., at the direction of Weston Phillips, former AV equipment installer, age 22. The whole thing started after Phillips had seen an ad for Frito-Lay's "Crash the Super Bowl" contest. Unfortunately for Phillips and his friends, he'd spotted the call for submissions less then five days before the deadline-not much time to film something sublime. "Basically we spent the afternoon deciding if it was worth it to give it a shot," said Phillips.
After agreeing that it was, the crew filmed the spot with a digital video camera. The shooting budget went to four Doritos bags. Phillips liked the idea of having a bag of Doritos stand in for an airbag that deploys in a car accident. But after some discussions, Phillips, his brother Barrett Phillips and partner Dale Backus decided to use that idea inside a boy-meets-girl tale.
Their spot-which would end up beating out the 1,059 others submitted-showed a man driving his car when an attractive young woman catches his eye. "Spicy" reads the caption. Then he smiles, which prompts a "Cheesy." Distracted, he proceeds to crash his car, and then the Doritos/airbag effect nets a "Crunchy." The woman runs over ("Bold") and the caption reads "Smooth?" just before she trips.
In staking out Super Bowl time, Frito-Lay was vying with the best minds on Madison Avenue, yet its amateur spot became the fourth-most-liked spot to air during the game, according to USA Today's Ad Meter (the top three were from Super Bowl stalwart Anheuser- Busch). The brand also started an online buzz that began in September, when the contest was announced, and lasted until February, when the spot eventually ran. What's more remarkable is that Frito-Lay wasn't the only brand to drop a consumer-generated ad into the most expensive airtime on TV. The NFL and General Motors also broadcast CGM ads. But "Frito-Lay probably had the most aggressive pre-promotion around them," said Pete Blackshaw, CMO for Nielsen BuzzMetrics (which, like Brandweek, is owned by Nielsen Co.) "It was a very aggressive application of the co-creation principle."
Maybe this sounds like your standard David-meets- Goliath tale. It's not. Marketer of the Year stories are often chronicles of plucky newcomers with scant budgets outwitting industry heavyweights, but the tale of Frito-Lay North America and its lead marketer, Anindita (Ann) Mukherjee, is a tribute to the overdog. Mukherjee has taken a dominant brand and, by dint of a bold and smart marketing strategy, made it cool. No mean feat,
that. Just ask execs from Coca-Cola or Microsoft.
According to estimates, Frito-Lay, a unit of PepsiCo, controls about 65% of the $15 billion salty snack category and has continued to both expand its market share and the segment by staying a step ahead of trends like trans fats, organics, reduced-calorie snacks and consumer-generated media. "They have grown the category, they've grown their share of category, they've traded people up to higher quality and higher-priced products," said Gary Stibel, CEO of New England Consulting, a Stamford, Conn., firm that Frito-Lay has retained in the past. Stibel attributes these advances in part to Frito-Lay's distribution footprint, which he says may be the best in the world. "You'll find Frito-Lay in more places than you'll find anything [else]. They are in retail stores, they are in bowling alleys, they are in damn near any place where you might be hungry and in a lot of places where you might not otherwise be hungry, but you might want a snack."
Distribution aside, the twin engine to Frito-Lay's highflying performance is its marketing department-which has grown strong in part by learning from past mistakes. In the late '80s, the company unleashed a slew of forgettable products like Rumbles granola nuggets, Toppels cheese crackers and Stuffers cheese-filled snacks, and was asleep at the switch as higher-end kettle-cooked chips dug a niche. Then there was Olestra, the Procter & Gamble fat substitute that Frito-Lay used in its WOW chips that will be forever linked to two words: anal leakage.
These days, Frito-Lay is a savvier operation, yet it's still one willing to take risks. That environment has proved a fertile one for Mukherjee, a Calcutta-born mother of two who joined the company in 2005. It is Mukherjee who is credited with embracing user generated content over the past year. For her efforts, the company promoted her from vp-marketing of Doritos to vpmarketing for Frito-Lay this year.
Mukherjee, who is known at company headquarters variously as the "itos girl" and the "corn queen," cut her teeth at Citibank Diners Club before marketing Mac 'N Cheese, Stove Top Stuffing and Minute Rice at Kraft. Then, as now, what seems to serve her best is vigor and intuition.
She'll kind of hear something and say, 'I love that!'" related Robert Riccardi, a partner with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, which works on some Frito-Lay accounts. "She has a ton of energies around ideas and pushes everyone around her forward."
Those energies found an outlet in consumer-generated media, which the marketing industry embraced in 2006, at least in spirit. Though many then and now saw CGM as a clear direction for the industry, handing a brand over to the unwashed masses often clashed with the ethos of a Fortune 1000 company. A good example of this is Coca- Cola, which did its best to quash and ignore viral videos showing how Mentos can create a geyser from a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke. That is, until the company realized a few months later that the fad could be good for business. Mukherjee did not see a big gamble in linking a Gen Y audience to consumer-generated media. For her, it was more like speaking to Frito-Lay's core demographic in its own language. "With Doritos, you look at the target of young adults and they want to have a voice," she said. "One of the things we really want to do is find ways to have them be part of the brand's DNA."
Mukherjee not only asked consumers to create ads, but also has asked them to name a new product. In May, the company rolled out a Doritos variation called X-13D. Sound awkward? The name's just a stand-in until consumers invent a new one.
"It's such a no-brainer, using actual packaging as a means to engage their consumers and really engage in a conversation," said Joseph Jaffe, chief interrupter of crayon, a New York-based buzz marketing firm and a prominent blogger. Better still, "the packaging is an input rather than an output, so to speak." But CGM is just the icing on the cake, as it were, for Frito-Lay. An arguably bigger change occurred in 2003, when the company stripped trans fats from its entire product line. You'd be hard pressed to find a company still shilling trans fats-laden foods these days, but back then Frito-Lay was pretty much a pioneer. Starting in the early 20th century, food manufacturers began converting liquid vegetable oils into solids or semisolids, a process known as hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated fats, which are semisolid, proved to be the most useful for baking and were cheaper than butter.
For years, partially hydrogenated fats-which are also known as trans fats-were held to be no different than other forms of fats. That changed in 1997, when a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked increased consumption of trans fats with heart attacks.
In 2002, as the trans-fats issue was gathering steam, Frito-Lay began a public relationship with Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the man who coined the term "aerobics" in 1968. Cooper recalled that when then-CEO Steve Reinemund called him, Cooper was reluctant to align himself with the company. "I said, 'Steve, I feel like I'd be collaborating with the enemy,'" Cooper said. Cooper has come around now, though, and he's eager to preach the gospel of Frito-Lay. "We're taking 50 million pounds of trans fats out of the American diet every 12 months," he said. Cooper has even gone so far as to recommend that all Americans eat two bags of Frito-Lay's Sun Chips daily. "We've got a study looking at Sun Chips," he said. "One package two times a day actually lowers cholesterol."
While Cooper has his critics, ("I wonder what he's being paid," said author and New York University nutritional professor Marion Nestle), his advice certainly made sense from a marketing standpoint. "People have finally realized that trans fats are bad for them, and companies have acted accordingly," said Ken Harris, founding partner of Cannondale Associates, Evanston, Ill. "Clearly, too many products have had too much of it."
While few have complained of a difference in taste (though Cooper admits the Lay's Baked chips have "lost some of the flavor"), Frito-Lay has managed to remove trans fats before public sentiment got to the point where it looked like a reactive move. At the same time, the company has anticipated trends like organic and portion control before rivals were able to carve out those niches.
After placing Mukherjee at the marketing helm in 2006,Frito-Lay has indisputably cooked up a batch of successes.Last year, the company unveiled Flat Earth, a line of dehydrated fruits and vegetables, likely destined for school vending machines. It also rolled out a 100-calorie Mini Bites line that addressed the portion-control issue. The effect, said Walter Todd, principal at Greenwood (S.C.) Capital Associates, is that Frito-Lay caters to the health-conscious crowd without losing its primary base of consumers. "Frito- Lay does a good job of dual-tracking it," he said. "They don't alienate their Doritos customers, and they don't make any bones about Doritos not being a healthy snack."
With its hold on salty snacks all but assured, the company continues to edge into the much larger "macrosnack" category, which means the flood of new products, aligned with what Mukherjee calls "cutting-edge marketing," will continue. "One of the things [I liked most] about coming to Frito-Lay is [that there's] a very entrepreneuring spirit," she said. "It's about doing what's right in the marketplace and the old adage of 'Give me the freedom of a tight strategy.'"
Incidentally, Weston Phillips and his team realized a fine ROI on their $13 investment. The top prize in the "Crash the Super Bowl" contest was a spicy $10K.
Photo by Tadd Myers