Sour Patch Kids’ heavy investment into online content generates huge returns in cultural currency.
Marketers of commodity brands, especially those aimed at teenagers, have long been aware of the need to deliver experience along with their products. It’s a tough trick to pull off, which is why marketers for food giant Mondelēz International’s brand Sour Patch Kids knew they needed a game changer if they were going to make headway into the market.
“When we looked at Sour Patch Kids, it was a growing candy brand loved by millions of teenagers, but still surprisingly small in a big soft-and-chewy candy category,” says Farrah Bezner, head of business ventures at Mondelēz International. “When we really stepped back and said, ‘How are we going to transform this business, not just small growth, but really transform and step-change growth?’ we looked at the different options we have.”
Bezner’s team decided to get ahead of their target market and drive teen chatter, not mirror what was already being said. They needed to make the brand, in a word, famous. To reach their target audience of teens, the marketing team set about three tasks: beefing up their social media presence, developing ambitious new video content initiatives and even making an entrance into the music industry.
“There are a lot of different marketing metrics you can look at, but we landed on fame because we felt that really encapsulated how we needed to behave as a brand. Even though fame was difficult, we really thought fame was the driver of cultural relevance and our goal ultimately was to connect with teens and millennials in a way that is meaningful to them,” Bezner says.
To make the brand famous, Bezner’s team studied the paths to fame taken by some of today’s biggest young stars. The team then outlined a number of strategies which hit on the theme of fame: being unique, showing depth, hanging out with famous people and distinguishing yourself online.
Investing heavily in social media, Sour Patch Kids launched a Snapchat account in July 2014, and quickly tapped social media star Logan Paul to create content for the account, engaging in “sour” and “sweet” pranks around New York City with the brand’s mascot, “the Kid,” in tow. Paul’s brother Jake was also recruited to helm the brand’s social media accounts during Nickelodeon’s 2015 Teen Choice Awards, which were sponsored in part by the brand. It also developed an app that lets users download a custom emoji board using sour and sweet “Kidmojis.”
On top of social media, the team developed a robust content strategy centered around four pivotal events on high-schoolers’ calendar: Valentine’s Day, prom, summer and Halloween. The “sour then sweet” theme played heavily into that messaging. The team aimed to make the brand about more than just candy, Bezner says. “It means being more than one-dimensional and having the characters and the voice of the brand come through in a way in that’s [about] more than its taste,” she says.
A Valentine’s Day 2015 campaign, for example, made use of story-sharing site WattPad. As they did with Snapchat, Bezner’s team enlisted the help of top influencers on the site before gamifying the project by encouraging fans to write their own love stories with twist endings. One story, “When Miss Sweet Met Mr. Sour,” was turned into an animated digital film that was distributed on the brand’s Instagram account.
Sour Patch Kids then developed a scripted series centered around high school students called Breaking Out, and cast YouTube celebrities, including Ricky Dillon and Andrea Russet—with a combined total of more than five million followers—in the roles.
“Scripted content living on the influencers’ channels, incorporating the ‘sour then sweet’ [theme] and incorporating the Kid [mascot], was another way we were ‘hanging out’ with famous people,” Bezner says. “When we did a meetup, we had kids lined up outside for three hours waiting to come in and meet with these influencers.”
Finally, the brand also entered into the music industry, setting up houses in Brooklyn, Austin and Los Angeles for emerging artists who “are on the road and on the rise,” Bezner says. Dubbed ‘The Patch,’ the dwellings are designed to be comfortable and high-end with flourishes of Sour Patch Kids branding sprinkled throughout the floorplan. While staying at the homes, artists are encouraged to post to their social media accounts with brand hashtags. Artists who sign up for longer stays can make use of camera crews and engineers to produce more substantial content. This is on top of the in-house recording studios available to the artists should they be overcome by the urge to jam while holed up in The Patch. Since opening, the residences have played host to at least 175 artists, including Halsey and Deer Tick, according to Bezner.
Global market research Euromonitor International shows the brand doubling its market share between 2010 and 2015, and more than doubling its retail sales over the same period, going from $120 million to $248 million over the five-year span. Between 2014—the year the “famous icon” efforts began—and 2015, sales shot up by nearly $30 million.
In January 2016, Sour Patch Kids put out casting calls in Los Angeles and New York for a web-based reality game show focused on a high school prom, and judged by social media sensation Twaimz.
“The brand continues to see tremendous consumption growth, and we’ve also been gaining share in the category,” Benzer says. “We talk about cultural marketing and how that is creating an impact. Although I don’t think there’s a direct KPI to measure culture. … I think the Kid is more famous than before, and fame is always something that continues to build.”
“I think the only ROI they could possibly be looking for is brand advocacy. From that perspective, I think they did that pretty well,” says Luba Tolkachyov, co-founder of digital marketing and cultural advertising agency Gravity.
South Patch Kids’ focus on the touchstones of teen culture have won Tolkachyov‘s respect. “Their consumer is a teenager. It’s a very coveted but also very hard to identify target audience. … They’re playing with a very fickle consumer,” Tolkachyov says. “It feels like the Sour Patch team is up to the challenge and they are doing tactics behind the scenes that we might not be exposed to as outsiders. Kudos to them; they’re doing really great work.”