Twinkies are back. But this time, they’re not necessarily destined for kids’ lunch boxes. The new target market: Young adult males, a.k.a. “bros.”
Today marks the beginning of Twinkies’ triumphant return to store shelves. Eight months ago, Hostess Brands – which makes Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, and numerous other iconic snack cakes, as well as Twinkies – fell into bankruptcy thanks to a combination of poor management, high pension costs, and changing consumer preferences. Production of fresh Twinkies ended in November.
But when word of the golden snack cake’s demise got around, social media sites were flooded with expressions of dismay and disbelief. Soon the dwindling supply of Twinkies began selling on eBay at a steep premium. Suddenly, we weren’t taking Twinkies for granted; it turned out that Americans loved Twinkies all along and were appalled that the cream-filled sponge cakes might disappear forever.
That outpouring of goodwill for the brand persuaded private equity firm Apollo Global Management and C. Dean Metropoulos and Company to buy the company’s cake division, in March, for $400 million.
How could the company, and the snack cake, be saved? Wary of alienating long-time Twinkies customers, Metropoulos and his two sons, Daren and Evan, promised not to mess too much with the product itself, at least for the time being. But everything else was in play. First, the new owners replaced union employees and significantly streamlined distribution; instead of delivering Twinkies directly to stores, the company now ships to retailer warehouses – a shift that expanded the number of retail stores selling Twinkies from 80,000 to 100,000.
That move also reflects a new target market. Whereas the company used to focus distribution mainly on grocery stores, where parents shop for items to put into school lunches, the company now plans to sell Twinkies through some 110,000 convenience stores, up from 50,000 under the previous owners. Why? Because that’s where the bros are. “We want to go beyond just the loyal fans to some of those people who should be fans,” says Dave Lubeck, executive vice president at advertising agency Bernstein-Rien, which created Hostess’s new advertising campaign. “So we’re really trying to move beyond the grocery store consumers into the c-store target, which is a younger male.”
The ad campaign created for the Twinkies re-launch reflects a younger, more aggressive style. The slogan, “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever,” has a 20-something dude feel to it. An accompanying social media campaign called prepareyourcakeface.com asks people to post Vine videos of themselves getting ready for the Twinkies relaunch.
Some industry experts have questioned whether Twinkies can appeal to a younger audience that’s grown up with food pyramids and calorie stats on everything they eat. But Hostess is betting that college-aged males will respond. “A huge amount of mom marketing, especially in the food sectors, is geared toward health and nutrition,” says branding expert Rob Frankel. “There’s not much you can say for health and nutrition in a Twinkie. So generally, the lowest hanging fruit for a company has been young males.”
Of course, Hostess wants to have it both ways, and is hoping that the irreverent message will appeal to women with families as well. “Moms shopping in grocery stores today speak the same language as their kids,” says Lubeck. “So if we spoke more with that kind of attitude — the attitude that maybe you’d see in young males today — we think that we get both audiences.”
The long-term challenge, however, is convincing millennials — male and female alike — to become regular Twinkies consumers once the sugar rush of the relaunch has subsided. Brand consultant Simon Mainwaring says the research on millennials suggests that they are attracted to brands that project social responsibility and health consciousness — neither of which feature prominently in the new marketing campaign. “What they’re doing makes sense, but from a long-term strategy point of view, market drivers won’t reward companies that don’t have a basic level of interest in the consumers’ well-being,” he says. “What I see happening with Twinkies is a competition between nostalgia and nourishment.”
There are hints that the company is looking into healthier Twinkie options. But for now, the millions of Twinkies available on store shelves today are virtually the same ones that have been around for decades – just with a different attitude, bro.