My Twinkies Memories

There are people who mourn the imminent disappearance of Twinkies. I am not one of them, but I've had something to do with their advertising.

twinkies-raidAs Hostess, the Twinkies maker is going out of business, Twinkies junkies are raiding the stores buying the last of this product. Here’s a rundown of what Twinkie means and how it impacted pop culture (via Wikipedia):

  • Ingredients. Enriched wheat flour, sugar, corn syrup, niacin, water, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable and/or animal shortening – containing one or more of partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed and canola oil, and beef fat, dextrose, whole eggs, modified corn starch, cellulose gum, whey, leavenings (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate), salt, cornstarch, corn flour, corn syrup, solids, mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, polysorbate 60, dextrin, calcium caseinate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, wheat gluten, calcium sulphate, natural and artificial flavors, caramel color, yellow No. 5, red #40.
  • Nutritional Value. A single Twinkie contains 2.5 grams of saturated fat, representing 13% of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat based on a 2,000 calorie diet. It is 42% sugars, 21% complex carbohydrates and 11% fat by weight.
  • Twinkie defense. The Twinkie defense is a derogatory term for a criminal defendant's claim that some unusual factor (such as allergies, coffee, nicotine, or sugar) diminished the defendant's responsibility for the alleged crime. The term arose from Herb Caen's description of the trial of Dan White, who was convicted in the fatal shootings of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk. During the trial, psychiatrist Martin Blinder testified that White had suffered from depression, causing diminished capacity. As an example of this, he mentioned that White, formerly a health food advocate, had begun eating junk food. Twinkies, specifically, were never actually mentioned in the case.
  • Twinkie diet. In 2010 a college professor named Mark Haub went on a "convenience store" diet consisting mainly of Twinkies, Oreos, and Doritos in an attempt to demonstrate to his students "that in weight loss, pure calorie counting is what matters most—not the nutritional value of the food". He lost 27 pounds over a 2-month period, returning his body mass index (BMI) to within normal range.

The restructuring in US has become a sale (cf mg):

The company, weighed down by debt, management turmoil, rising labour costs and the changing tastes of America, decided on Friday that it no longer could make it through a conventional Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring. Instead, it’s asking the court for permission to sell assets and go out of business.

But with high brand recognition and $2.5 billion in revenue per year, other companies are interested in bidding for at least pieces of Hostess. Twinkies alone have brought in $68 million in revenue so far this year, which would look good to another snack-maker.

“There’s a huge amount of goodwill with the commercial brand name,” said John Pottow, a University of Michigan Law School professor who specializes in bankruptcy. “It’s quite conceivable that they can sell the name and recipe for Twinkies to a company that wants to make them.” (..)

Management missteps were another problem. Hostess came under fire this spring after it was revealed that nearly a dozen executives received pay hikes of up to 80 per cent last year even as the company was struggling.

What is happening in the US should not affect Canada (in fact, the Canadian rights holder might be wise to purchase the US rights: Twinkies are still produced in Canada by Saputo Incorporated's Vachon Inc. (in bakery in Montreal) which owns the Canadian rights for the product from Hostess (cf Wikipedia).

And that is precisely what I remember. Back in the 90s, while I was still a student, I was in the calling list of a few marketing / consumer research companies. They’d call me regularly to take part in focus groups. I was paid $50-$100 for 1-2h of staying in a room with the marketing team behind a reflective glass and answer questionnaires or interacting with other “demographics reps”.

Each one of us would generally get a phone call from the marketing company and answer a number of “qualifying questions”. For the Twinkies assignment, these involved how much junk food we ate and how often, what brands we preferred and why. Even though I did not eat much of that crap (in fact, I tried it once out of curiosity, I wasn’t keen to repeat the experience, but I answered that I consumed it regularly. I qualified and had a feeling that everybody else lied similarly.

At the marketing firm’s HQs, judging from the questions, it seemed  that they were interested in how to position the product against its main competitor, Jos Louis Cake, which is about the same thing, only brown and using different artificial flavours. Together with me in the focus group there was a black guy and a white guy. It was quite clear that both preferred Jos Louis and, like me, may have lied about their preferences to get in.

Based on their preferences, the two were trying to get the marketing team to suggest an advertising campaign based primarily on darker colours, similar to Jos Louis packaging. To me that seemed insane: I thought the packaging and advertising colors should match the product appearance rather than misled the consumers into believing they’re buying something chocolatey. Unfortunately, the black guy seemed to take my position as being more than related to the product we were discussing, extrapolating it to society and race. Stuck between choosing an answer that I thought was bad for the product and misleading for the consumer and unjustifyably angering the other guy, I went with trying the best for those paying me. Meanwhile, the other white guy adopted a position of compromising, purposely avoiding “taking sides”, as if we were in the midst of a war.

I was happy to see that my suggestions had found their way into the final packaging, which stayed white. On the other hand, I had been profoundly disappointed by the entire “focus group” process. Later on, I was to learn about Steve Jobs’ opinion about it:

It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.

  • As quoted in BusinessWeek (25 May 1998)

Some say that if Henry Ford had been using focus groups to come up with an idea to produce a better means of transportation they would have told him to get a faster horse.

Sources / More info: mg, wiki


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