The Twinkie Effect: Even a Sponge Cake Has a Story

June 28, 2013

A plethora of recent headlines and articles featuring the return of America’s beloved Twinkie is a PR practitioner’s dream for achieving earned media and building buzz around an upcoming product re-launch. Consider the following headlines:

PR professionals thrive on helping our clients capture that kind of news coverage and engagement. Mastering media relations is key to that goal, but developing the story behind the brand is the secret recipe.

The Twinkie return is being hailed as “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever” – that’s the tagline that will now appear on all new Twinkie boxes. While that may be exciting for loyal consumers alone, a suite of technology tools enhances the build up.

For example, Hostess has a countdown clock on its website for fans to follow until the Twinkie return. At the time of this writing, we had only about 400 hours yet to wait. In the unlikely event that one might forget, Hostess is offering a convenient sign up for an email alert reminder on July 15 when Twinkies are back on store shelves. To keep Twinkie enthusiasts entertained in the meantime, Hostess is inviting fans to record and post a Vine video of their best #cakeface in preparation of the Twinkie revival.

This entire buzz is for a sponge cake that seems to have a golden ticket in terms of brand loyalty among its buyers. The efforts to bring back the Twinkie have many elements of a successful PR campaign:

The organic nature of the Twinkie effect is a great case study for content marketing. All of the above communication vehicles have one thing in common: content. The basis of content is good storytelling. In the world of content marketing, a good story holds the power.

As a journalist and public relations professional, I am always evaluating the newsworthiness of a potential story. So what’s the story behind the Twinkie?

Created in the 1930s, Twinkies were introduced by The Continental Baking Company in Indianapolis, which also made “Wonder Bread,” and had a snack line called Hostess. The Twinkie rose to popularity in the 1950s in great part due to Hostess sponsoring the Howdy Doody show, featuring the Twinkie. It has become an American icon; even President Clinton put one in a time capsule.

That’s a brief, generic history about the Twinkie – but it doesn’t really tell Twinkies’ story. The real story lies in the customer’s connection with the Twinkie.

Before we examine the customer’s connection, let’s look at a few criteria of newsworthiness to see if the Twinkie can pass the test:

Yes, the old adage that “everyone has a story” even applies to a Twinkie.

Would you like to know Twinkie’s secret recipe? In terms of PR and content marketing, it’s this: The companies are not telling the Twinkie story; they are allowing their customers, and customer behaviors, to lead them. The companies are supporting their loyal customers with forums for engagement and information the consumers want. Supporting an audience in this way keeps them coming back for more, and eventually leads to loyal customers who are advocates for a brand.

In essence, it’s not really Twinkie’s story they are telling. Instead, it is the customers’ personal stories related to the product. It’s those stories – not testimonials or traditional advertising – that become the engine for sales, marketing and engagement.

The other important lesson brands must remember is to keep it real. Authenticity in content marketing will build social collateral that can’t be bought.

Twinkie isn’t trying to be something it’s not by launching an aggressive promotional campaign. The tone and social engagement matches the product and brand, and is largely set by the customers themselves. It still takes a mix of content to stay relevant and protect the brand, but more often than not, the user-generated content starts a conversation around the brand. Creating or generating content that people want to share begins with the human connection.

Every company and product has a story. The companies who tell their stories in the most innovative ways will achieve fans and followers. The key is helping companies figure out how customers will engage with their brand.

How? It all starts with discovering each company’s Twinkie effect – the power of a story.