For decades, advertisers have relied on the meticulously crafted spokesperson to reach out to their target market audience, a fabricated ‘Average Joe’ that appeals to the least common denominator and unambivalently states, “I’m just like you; this product is for people like us.” Whether it is with the Marlboro man proffering a pack of ‘Reds’ to the self-styled bad boy, or the simple farmer informing other farmers of a better way to buy insurance, or the model two-kids-and-a-yard household family relishing in the delights of frozen dinners, advertisers have historically represented their brands with an image of their intended customer that is tailored to be so extremely ‘average’ that he/she captivates vast numbers of consumers without actually embodying any particular individual. However, as Frédéric Filloux points out in his article “The Death of Joe Average,” this kind of advertising is becoming increasingly more inefficient due to the fact that “as the content scatters on the internet, so does the audience,” and “analyzing trends [in consumption] has become more complicated” because “audiences are no longer monolithic, their breakdowns are hard to ascertain” (Filloux, 2010). More simply, people have no reason to pay for material they can access freely online, which disintegrates the subscriber base demographic upon which advertisers have traditionally based their marketing decisions. At the same time an individual consumer no longer relies on one source of information, but rather scans various websites with different stories and perspectives. As Filloux bluntly asserts, “Forget about Joe Average, he’s dead” (ibid.). How then should firms reach out to their consumers? Nabisco’s Wheat Thins brand is certainly not the first company to tackle this difficult question, but it is one of the most creative in its attempts. Through the use of viral ads and extensive, hands-on involvement with its Twitter fan base, Nabisco has successfully adapted traditional marketing strategies to the new media environment, promoting its product in a way other firms strive to imitate.
Rather than spending time and money on fabricating a model spokesperson, Wheat Thins decided instead to follow their actual consumer base and allow their customers to do the talking for them. So, the company created a Twitter account called @CrunchIsCalling, invited fans to post their Wheat Thins-related woes, and created commercials from some of the more interested posts, which follow the same general story-line — someone makes a comment related to Wheat Thins (ex. they’ve run out, they’re too crunchy/ loud, they’re doing something weird with them) and the Wheat Thins A-Team (yellow van and no Mr. T) surprises them with a crate of their crackers to show that the company is listening to their customers’ concerns.
Obviously, many people were skeptical of the verity of these situations, because, after all, it would seem cheaper and easier for a company to simply hire actors to play out the scene and look surprised. Thus, several consumers mounted an investigation into the first advertisement released by the “Crunch Is Calling” campaign, which features a young woman named Tabatha. Steve Spillman, in a blog titled “The Big Money,” revealed his major discoveries:
- according to a computer screen inside of the Wheat Thins van, Tabatha directed a tweet at @CrunchIsCalling on 11 June 2010, following a post about a 70′s fashion show; however, Tabatha’s real Twitter account cites the tweet as 14 June 2010, and contains no prior postings
- the “tweet” actually originated from a Facebook status update that had attracted the attention of a Wheat Thins marketing team member
- a promotional agent contacted Tabatha’s aunt to coordinate the commercial so that the company could really surprise Tabatha and elicit “undeniably real reactions”
- the giant crate of Wheat Thins is actually empty; the company shipped their product to Tabatha in smaller portions sometime after the production of the commercial
Although Mr. Spillman concedes the advertisement is “fun” and “a good use of social media by Nabisco,” he paints the company in a negative light, concluding, “social-media marketing is supposed to be about authentic brand engagement” but “Wheat Thins hasn’t offered anything authentic enough to hold on to” (Spillman, 2010). However, I, along with the 10,347 Wheat Thins followers on Twitter and Nabisco’s revenues, would like to disagree.
First of all, it is important to note that the Wheat Thins marketing team, very much conscious of the new media environment in which they operate, promptly addressed their critics (the ad was posted on YouTube on 24 Jun, Spillman’s blog entry appeared on 28 July, and Wheat Thins’ response was uploaded on 29 July) in a video posted on their YouTube channel. Few other companies have exhibited such new media awareness — except in the case of forced public apologies for controversial or insensitive posts — and fewer still have taken the time to address their nay sayers. Furthermore, the company reached out to six additional Twitter followers who had posted creative or funny tweets on @CrunchIsCalling. However, some consumers, like Derek Tzeo, remained unconvinced, although not for long.
In an interview with Urlesque.com, Derek Tzeo describes what happened after he had seen Tabatha’s commercial and tweeted that it was fake. In a nut shell, a member of the Wheat Thins team contacted his mother to bring him out to Los Angeles (from Portland, Oregon) so that they could surprise him with his own commercial. ”When they first came, I didn’t see… I really didn’t notice them at first,” narrates Derek, “but then, when he said my name, I was like that’s the Wheat Thins people and I was like ‘Oh man, these commercials are actually really real!” (Urlesque, 2011) Derek’s advertisement, more than any other, shows that the company is authentically committed to engaging with its customers on a personal basis (insofar as it is possible) and will not hesitate to disprove its disbelievers.
Along with the commercials and personalized Twitter responses, Wheat Thins has also reaches out to its fan base on a micro level, sometimes sending out small gifts like the box of Wheat Thins and personalized letter received by @MissVannette (See image, right). The company even hosted a “Crunch Den” at Bonaroo, where people were invited to taste Wheat Thins and escape the heat. With all of the ways Wheat Thins reaches out to its customers, who wouldn’t be excited? Twitter fans have been from the start. On 4 March, Amanda Branco tweeted, “@crunchiscalling could possibly be the coolest discovery I have made on twitter yet. Wheat Thins meets social media!”
All of this hype is not hot air, as Mr. Spillman would have us believe, which fact is reflected in Wheat Thins’ earnings reports. According to Andrew Adam Newman’s New York Times Article “Don’t Call It a Cracker: Wheat Thins Prefers to Be Billed as a Snack,” “growth, much like Wheat Thins themselves, had been flat over the last few years, but the brand has had month-over-month increases in both revenue and market share for each of the last six months, according to Symphony/IRI Group, whose data does not include Wal-Mart” (Newman, 2011). Apparently, they’ve done something right.
Ultimately, Wheat Thins’ viral video advertisements have attracted skeptics and admirers alike, but, particulars aside, what sets this marketing campaign apart as a new marketing phenomenon is the company’s devotion to fully adapting to the new media environment. The fact that the firm managed to track down individual consumers using only the information available on their social networking accounts is, to say the least, impressive — such a campaign would have simply been too impractical and costly in any other decade. In realizing that such things were possible in the age of social networks, the company found a new type of “Average Joe” to sell their products, this time the real one. At the same time, by engaging with customers on a relatively inexpensive personal level through the use of Twitter, Wheat Thins has been able to show that they care about consumers in a way that simply stating, “We care about our consumers” never could. By responding to individual tweets and criticisms, as well as sending gifts such as boxes of Wheat Thins to individual consumers, company has simply adapted “the answers to comments/concerns” and “samples” of bygone decades to the new media environment. In all of these ways, the brand has displayed the new mind-set necessary to prosper in marketing and advertising today, and has produced one of the strongest outreach campaigns in recent times, a fact confirmed by their rapidly-expanding revenues and market share. New media can be a powerful tool in advertising, but it has to be done right; Wheat Thins does it right.