How Oscar Mayer creates content with real bite

From steering the Wienermobile into the digital age to building a bacon-scented alarm clock app, Tom Bick, former senior director of integrated marketing and advertising at Oscar Mayer, spoke to Gideon Fidelzeid about how a content-driven approach and careful attention to consumer reactions helps him keep an iconic brand fresh.

Gideon Fidelzeid: How was the idea of Wake Up and Smell the Bacon born?

Tom Bick: It actually started with an earlier idea, The Great American Bacon Barter. I challenged our digital agency and said, "Blow my socks off. I want an idea worthy of going to Cannes." They delivered in spades. Kraft is a pretty conservative marketer, but the whole organization saw the potential.

Wake Up and Smell the Bacon came about after looking at our product’s points of difference. Our bacon is about a dollar more per pound at retail. We smoke our products longer and use natural hardwood smoking. The core of the brief was, essentially, it needs to be PR-worthy. It needs to be another episode like Bacon Barter, but has to focus on our unique points of difference.

Our briefs always state campaigns need to go from paid to earned. I need to have 300 million to 500 million impressions behind this. We handed it off to our digital agency and they came back with this crazy idea. They suggested we take a scent device we found from a manufacturer in Japan, use our bacon scent, and create a unique app and alarm clock you can set. I saw front pages. It was brilliant. It was easy for me to buy into the idea.

Of course, it’s harder to sell it to the organization. Immediate questions were: How much does it cost to create? How many devices will you make? My reaction: "You’re missing the point. Do you see the potential in the idea? That front page? That’s what we’re going after. We’ll figure out the details."

Fidelzeid: You mentioned impressions. In some PR circles, they have become frowned upon as a key metric.

Bick: We’d gotten 350, 400 million impressions prior, so this set a new benchmark for us.

If you drop a bomb, you must have a mass effect. While impressions are not where we end measurement, we are required to prove all our marketing efforts – and that’s one way. We typically use marketing mix analysis, econometric modeling. It’s hard, but we have shown good ROI numbers. We also look at engagement, the precursors to actual sales. It’s a mixed bag, but you have to link it to sales. And it’s a fight. My job is not to just buy the best ideas, but also fight for those ideas.

Fidelzeid: How do you keep the Wienermobile fresh for a new generation of consumers while still playing up its nostalgic value?

Bick: The Wienermobile is a PR machine. If you were to start today, you couldn’t come up with a better idea than a 27-foot hot dog.

When I arrived at Kraft [in August 2011], all our marketing VPs were talking about the need to create disruption, to break from the past, and distance themselves from those assets we had. That seems wrong to me. Sure you need to create disruption and become relevant, but when you have an asset with so much goodwill as the Wienermobile, you have to figure out how to leverage it.

So we reframed it. We made it our social media hub. We now have six hot dogs driving across the country. It’s mobile marketing. I can drive it in front of the White House, post it on Instagram, and it gets a ton of shares. We also use it for fun ideas such as #Tweet2Lease, the first car ad done with Twitter. It’s just begging to be used in social media.

Fidelzeid: What are the keys to producing brilliant, award-winning content on such a tight budget?

Bick: It’s always about having a little bit of paid to get a lot of earned. You do need to spend some money. There’s no free lunch. We’ve learned you need to have some paid media behind it to give it a chance. Not a lot. You really need great content, but there are creative ways to save. We shoot in states that have a tax break, for example. Also, if you have a truly great idea, you can find an up-and-coming director who wants to have that on his or her reel and might be willing to do so for not a lot of pay.  

Fidelzeid: What brands do you admire for the content they have produced?

Bick: The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign by Dos Equis. When the beer industry was big into product ads focused on quality and taste, this little brand did something completely different. It didn’t talk about the beer at all. It created an iconic playboy and showed brands can prosper by thinking about things from a content standpoint, not from a hard sell. It’s sales were up 7% the year it came out while the entire industry was down. It was brilliant content that impacted the bottom line.

Fidelzeid: What is the key to functioning effectively with numerous creative partners?

Bick: You must create an environment that fosters competition, healthy competition. You want to be that account every junior person craves to work on because he or she wants to do great things. You also have to create an atmosphere that allows great ideas to come from anywhere, but still avoids complete chaos.

I know my agencies’ strengths and weaknesses. I give a lot of thought to who will be the lead agency on each assignment. When pondering each task, I focus on who I think has the best shot at coming up with that really provocative idea.

I’m a bit of a dictator there. It’s not a democracy where everybody sits at the table and every idea is worked on. Who has that time? The agency may not get it the first time out of the gate, and that’s OK. You keep working on it. Once we get that thought starter, then we get everybody at the table. We say, "We’re not changing this core idea because we love it, but we will build off it. Now bring me ideas to make it stronger."

Fidelzeid: What has consumer feedback taught you about your content?

Bick: Social media is a great listening tool. Yeah, it’s biased, but in many ways it was a validation of our efforts early on. When I see things like, "Whoa, where did that come from? Oscar Mayer? You’re kidding me, right?" Those are great statements of people actively reconsidering our brand.

Social listening is where you get the creative feedback that might really help you. I’m not a fan of focus groups, copy testing, and things of that nature. Those drive you to average marketing because you’re taking the edges off. And average is failure in this day and age.

I look for things that get a reaction. I don’t want anybody having a neutral tone toward what we do. If I have more people loving it, we stay the course.

Fidelzeid: You’ve said in the past marketing is the only branch in the business world where it’s about the humanity quotient. Can you elaborate on that?

Bick: We need to sell product, but we’re dealing with human beings. We try to make rational decisions, but we’re emotional animals. You need to understand psychology, neuroscience, how human emotions really work, and you must have ideas that intersect in that area. In the business world, people come from finance and accounting backgrounds. They love a closed system of numbers or a solution that is easy to put on paper. Human beings don’t work that way.

There’s a process to get to a great idea, but there’s no formula. You can’t take the human being out of the equation. That’s what I love about marketing. I majored in analytics and math. Early in my career, I thought I could use those to be a better marketer. I quickly learned you can’t equation your way to great marketing. There is this human side of it that I appreciate much more now.

Fidelzeid: What are the keys to real-time marketing?

Bick: We used to think we had to be on social every day, but consumers are worn out getting messages. You must be careful to not overstay your welcome.

We have a social media strategy that’s always on, but that means probably posting two times a week. We went from every day to less is more. We’re listening all the time, so we’re engaging conversations where we need to. Then we have what we call "quick wins," where we listen for opportunities that could be potentially bigger. We set aside a budget to do, maybe, six to 10 quick wins a year. We also have "planned bets." We pick 10 moments from the calendar where we try to surf off of the event that’s coming up.

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