Company: Kraft Heinz Company (Planters)
Agency partners: VaynerMedia (creative, social media), ICF Next (PR), StarCom (media relations)
Duration: January 14 to February 2, 2020
Planters killed off its mascot Mr. Peanut – then brought him back from the dead as Baby Nut for its Super Bowl LIV ad.
The brief from Kraft Heinz was "to create the most-talked-about Super Bowl ad ever made," said Jeremy Mullman, a partner at IFC Next.
Planning began last summer. From the beginning, creative agency VaynerMedia was interested in the idea of killing - and ultimately resurrecting - Mr. Peanut.
"If you look at popular culture, an interesting thing happens when fictional characters appear to die," Mullman said.
The deaths of Iron Man and Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow, for example, created a greater appreciation and awareness of both characters.
"We felt if Mr. Peanut could go through something like that, he would benefit from a similar cycle," Mullman said. As an added bonus, it was an opportunity to transform the 104-year-old mascot into a more contemporary character.
By September, the concept was greenlit. In addition to generating social buzz, the primary goal was to grab the public’s attention through earned media, both leading up to and after the Super Bowl.
On January 14, Kraft Heinz announced that it would be running a Mr. Peanut ad during the Super Bowl, starring Wesley Snipes and Veep actor Matt Walsh.
The announcement generated "a decent sized splash," Mullman said, in large part because Walsh was available for interviews. In addition to trade publications, it was covered by USA Today and Variety, among others.
A week later, Planters’ Super Bowl ad, called "Road Trip," was released. The 30-second spot shows Mr. Peanut, Snipes and Walsh on a journey in the Nutmobile until it flies off a cliff. The trio jumps out and fortunately are able to grab hold of a tree branch, but they are too heavy and it cracks under their weight. Mr. Peanut sacrifices himself so that his friends can live to see another day, falling to his death as the Nutmobile explodes below.
Following the launch, Kraft Heinz confirmed Mr. Peanut’s death by switching his Twitter handle to "The Estate of Mr. Peanut."
The spot, which was boosted by paid support, went viral.
"People couldn’t believe a brand would do this," Mullman said.
Although reactions were mixed, "Road Trip" undeniably got people talking, penetrating the cultural conversation. Mr. Peanut’s death made its way into New Yorker cartoons; late-night TV show hosts including Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, and Steven Colbert all talked about the spot; and it was referenced twice on Saturday Night Live.
Planters also distributed prayer candles to media outlets as part of the campaign.
Then, on January 26, less than a week after the spot aired, news broke that NBA legend Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. Because Planters social media strategy targeted lifestyle and news outlets, posts about Mr. Peanut’s death appeared side-by-side with posts about Bryant.
"That did not feel appropriate at all," Mullman said. "Within an hour of the news breaking, we had taken steps to stop all paid media on the campaign."
The brand also cancelled a number of planned PR activations. The team contacted media publications that had been sent prayer candles prior to the news to explain the situation.
"They understood," Mullman said.
The team discussed pulling the Super Bowl ad altogether, but ultimately decided to move forward.
"When we released the ‘Road Trip’ spot, we said the Super Bowl would be Mr. Peanut’s funeral," said Mullman. "If that’s all you know, it sounds dark. But we knew the spot itself was pretty uplifting and light. That colored our decision making."
During Super Bowl LIV, the ad, called "Tribute" aired, picking up at Mr. Peanut’s funeral. Mourners included fellow mascots Mr. Clean and Kool-Aid Man, who cried on the grave, prompting Mr. Peanut to be reborn as Baby Nut.
After the Super Bowl spot aired, Mr. Peanut’s handle was changed again, this time to Baby Nut. The team had social media content ready, including a live stream of Baby Nut and memes, which were distributed across social platforms.
The rollout wasn’t flawless; Planters’ meme accounts were suspended from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on spam and manipulation.
What’s next for Baby Nut?
"All babies grow up, and baby nuts are no different," Mullman said. "You will see Baby Nut grow up, but we’re not saying when or how."
The campaign generated more than 7,700 earned media placements, including write-ups in The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine and Eater. On YouTube, "Road Trip" and "Tribute" have been viewed 7.3 million and 2.5 million times, respectively. Both videos trended on YouTube, with "Road Trip" peaking at number 32 and "Tribute" currently at number 25 and climbing.
The general response was polarizing. The Washington Post named it one of the worst Super Bowl commercials, a sentiment shared by a vocal contingent on social media. The Associated Press, however, named it one of the best ads of the night.
According to Mullman, the intensity and diversity of opinion was not just expected, but welcome: "People are always going to react in different ways. We viewed that as an inevitable but good sign."
The Baby Nut live stream racked up 1.27 million unique views. On social media, the campaign generated more than 200,000 conversations around #BabyNut. Mr. Peanut was the top trending topic on Twitter after his death was announced, and the number three trending topic during the Super Bowl.