We have a sweet treat in episode 14! David Leavitt, formerly an executive with the Hostess brand, walks us through the bankruptcy of Hostess and the comeback of the Twinkie. It was such an amazing chain of events that led up to “The Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever!” David also takes us through the leadership lessons he learned, his influencers, and what is next for him. This episode is twice the length of our typical show, but it is worth every minute. Where else can you get a sales and marketing executive quoting L.L. Cool J’s, Mama Said Knock You Out?
This week, I ask David to give us three lessons he learned during the Twinkie comeback. Here are his answers:
- Know Your Brand – Live it, breathe it, and own it. If you are not passionate for it, then how can you save it, sell it and make it grow? This starts with always understanding your core consumer – their heart, their soul, what they want, what they need.
- Have Great Partners – This works both internally within your company as well as on either side of the agency/client relationship. You have to have the trust and the connection, in sync with each other as well as the brand as I mentioned above. Recognize there will be conflict and differences of opinion and you can’t know it all. But together you can achieve much more.
- Know You Can Do More Than You Think Possible - Believe in the impossible. Believe in your team and partners. Believe in yourself. There will be doubters, both inside and outside your company. Know you will succeed. You can overcome mistakes along the path. Be your own cheerleader as well as your team’s cheerleader.
- Sporting KC – They have done a great job engaging the community, engaging the fans, working with sponsors. Sporting KC is leading in digital efforts, and do a great job across all facets of their social media and game time/in stadium marketing. They understand the region, offer a great product, and develop a relationship with the community.
- Apple – They have done a phenomenal job with branding, simple yet highly effective product design, and a great retail experience. They nail my first point – high level of empathy. They are so visceral, so instinctive and brilliant, they know what you need before you know it. They continually over deliver on the consumer experience and build relationships. It’s the reason they are easily the most valuable company in the world right now.
- Enjoy Life Foods - They are one of many “free from” brands. Their products are free of the 8 most common food allergies, including gluten and nut. They are filling a very personal and important need.
I left the company. Started some consulting on my own. A year later the company started to fall back apart again. The issues that were not completely resolved in the first bankruptcy, came back around again. I came back and joined the company. It was a really stressful time for a lot of people. A lot of people who had been with the company for 25-30 years, had put all their heart and soul into trying to save this company, but it was literally dying a very slow death. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, the unions went on strike in late November of 2012. A week later, the banks closed up shop. The company was losing a lot of money, and the banks closed up. The company was gone, and Twinkies and Wonderbread were thought to be no more. The outpouring we saw online when that absolutely happened, was nothing short of phenomenal. People were tweeting, putting up Facebook posts, there were editorial cartoons, a lot of people were joking that the Mayan Calendar that had forecasted an Apocalypse in 2012, actually had come to pass.
In the process, it looked like a Apollo Management Group and Dean Metropoulos and Company were going to be the lead bidders for the company. Sure enough, about four or five weeks later, it looks like they're going to win the company. A small group of us gathered in Dallas, Texas to meet with Dean and to figure out how we're going to re-launch this company. The company shut down, we're meeting in Dallas, Texas, and we know we're going to have to launch the company fast, launch it smart. We don't have a budget, a plan or anything else; other than the fact we know we want to get back on market before the August back-to-school time-period. We already had kind of an inkling, that's what we're going to have to do.
The core team met. It was a few people from the ad agency, and our PR agency, a few members of the executive team, including myself, and a few members of our sales and broker team. The group of us got together, to start working, "How would we relaunch this company?" We had to come up with a launch plan, a slogan, a statement; something to proclaim that we were back, bigger than ever. We'd been given a, "Your cake is back," as the theme. We thought, you know what? That's a little lame. This is going to be much bigger than just "your cake is back." This is going to be just an absolutely love affair once we come back, and we wanted to tap into that, to really make sure we did it the right way, to drive the excitement, and to get back on the shelf.
Rightfully, customers and our competition were both either pushing to keep us off the market, or questioning what way we would come back. We knew we had to come back with something so over the top, and so big that there was no way our customers couldn't take us back, in that piece. Now, we'd been going for an hour or two, working through the plans, trying to come up with idea, and we were really, really struggling. There was something we just couldn't tap into. There was like a brick wall we couldn't quite get past. In the back of my head, I had this song playing. It kept going. I just couldn't get rid of it. Finally, I said, you know what, guys? I want to play something for you. It's the opening lyrics to L.L. Cool J's song, "Mama Said Knock You Out." Everybody looked at me like, "What?! What are you talking about?" Everybody just kind of stared at me, like ... I said, "Hold on guys. Let me play it for you." I pulled out my I-Phone because I had it on there, and I played the first lyrics. I'm going to read you a couple of lines from the song. It starts off with:
"Don't call it a comeback,
I been here for years.
I'm rocking my peers,
Putting suckers in fear."
I sat there and said, this is bigger than a comeback. This is the greatest comeback. This is some kind of phenomenal return, something that's never been done before. This is something much bigger than anything like that at all. I played the rest of the first part of the song for them, and it talked about how competition's going to pay the price, don't compare us; this whole attitude. The Bernstein-Rein, the agency we were working with at the time, their creative team over there, all of a sudden had this spark. You could just see the juices begin to flow. The president of our company was sitting a couple of chairs over from me, and he said, "You know what? You guys got it now. That's what it is. So, here's what I want you to do. I want you to go back to the backroom here at this office. I want you to figure out what the words are going to be. And don't come out until you're done. Or 30 minutes. Whichever comes first." They said, "What?" And he said, "You've got 30 minutes. Figure it out. Come back."
The four of them go up, went back to the back office. The rest of us took a break and started thinking about, "Okay, they're going to come back with something fantastic. What are we then going to do with it next? How are we going to talk to our customers, and how are we going to start getting all that stuff put together?" We knew something bigger than a come back. They're back there, noodling around, throwing a bunch of ideas up on the wall, and the greatest come back, or the greatest comeback ever were kind of the original ideas that were popping up. But that wasn't own-able. It wasn't something unique and special. A lot of people, sports teams, you know, actors who've left to come back, politicians, anybody and a lot of different people can make that, "We're the greatest come-back ever," kind of stuff.
It wasn't own-able for the brand. What's the brand known for? Right? Cream fillings, sweet icing, all that kind of stuff. Great tasting cake. They came back and had the idea, "You know, we're going to call it the sweetest comeback. Or the sweetest comeback ever." You know what, that's pretty close. It's going down the path. But it's still not 100% own-able. It's still not something that is so unique and different, that we can really just lay claim to it. We had a little bit of baggage on the brand, in that during the bankruptcy time period, the company had become fairly conservative in the way it was marketing products. It really targeted the moms who had originally been buying the product in the 90s and 2000s. Unfortunately, it's now 2013, and some of those moms, their kids are gone. The next generation of moms had not necessarily been brought up on the product.
The same way, half our business was selling to men in convenience stores who were buying Honey Buns and Donets, and those types of items for breakfast foods, or for snacks. In some way too, we weren't talking to them in a relevant voice, either. How would Jimmy Fallon, or how would a millennial, how would somebody else with a little bit of an attitude actually say this? That's what they were working through, trying to solve that. They come out with an idea. They come out with a statement they want to say, and they say, "You know what? We think we've got it: The sweetest comeback in the history of ever." We all sat there for a second in the room, and thought about that. Like, bam! You know what, that's it! That is it! The greatest comeback in the history of ever. Right there we had figured out what we were going to say.
We also looked at it and said it's grammatically incorrect. It is way too long to put on package. Right? Or any kind of point of sale materials like that. It's too long to put on a Facebook post. Right? It is absolutely everything is wrong with that, and a classically trained MBA strategy person would say, "That is not a right positioning statement, consumer statement to have. It breaks all the rules." We said, "You know what? That's exactly what we're trying to do." We're going to redefine this brand and what it is, and we're going to start with that right there. We pitched it the next morning to Dean, and the ownership group. They loved it immediately. It was a fast, quick presentation. Nailed it: Bam! We got the green light, "Go!" We got the green light: Go. We also had a problem. We were now 12 weeks away from when Dean wanted us to start shipping. We had no budget. No plan. Limited staffing. All we had was this tagline and a vision, and that piece. Then we had the support to get it done, that piece. Off to the races we went with just 12 weeks to go.
Right now this was a one-man shop. I was the only person in the marketing department. I didn't have a lot of brand assistance or brand man-use to help delegate and manage. Instead I had outsourced 100% of the department, and it was critical that I had faith and confidence in all of these teams to get this done. Everybody knew their part. When I said, we were off to the races, everybody was just all out going on this whole piece. Dean formally gets approval to the bankruptcy the second week of April. He owns the company. We're ready to go. We've already got a head-start about a week of what we're going to do. The agencies start putting together the plans on what we're going to do. We're concepting package design updates, social media posts, a launch plan, a tease plan.
Everything is going, and we're having sometimes daily meetings with Dean, either over the phone, or in person, reviewing what we're going to do and how we're going to do it, on that piece. Just kind of checking in with him, to make sure we're aligned. We'd get a quick check-off, "Yep, you're good. Keeping going." Our president was on the road, starting to pitch ideas to customers, to get them to notice. We started ginning up, "Hey, we're coming." Right? The weeks are counting down really quick. Twelve weeks, eleven weeks, ten weeks. We're starting to try to finish up the product formulations, and hiring some temporary staff in the bakery, so we can start baking. It's just an absolute mad scramble trying to get there.
Four weeks out we decide we decide we're going to launch this teaser campaign. The teaser campaign was called, "Prepare your cake face." What it was, was we didn't have any product. All we did was we had street teams, in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. What they did was they would intercept people in high traffic areas, give them a t-shirt, talk to them about Twinkies, about them coming back. Did they miss them? Get them excited, and then do some really quirky, fun stuff. They would do exercise routines, like mouth yoga. Get your jaws ready because when it comes back, you're going to want to eat Twinkies again. You're going to want the Cupcakes. You're gonna want the Honey Buns. All that kind of good stuff. We started the whole campaign, but we didn't tell anybody when we were actually going to be back on shelf.
It was purely a tease campaign to let them know we were coming back sometime in the summer, and let people post videos and do a hashtag, "Prepare your cakeface." We would pick up the video automatically and pipe-light it into a vine feed that we had, over to Instagram. In fact, when we were going to launch this program, just a couple days prior to launching the program, Instagram announced they had integrated video into their app, so we had to reprogram our entire program to make sure we could integrate that too, as well. We were probably one of the first, if not the first brand to be on Instagram, and digging that whole piece. That started the whole tease campaign. We started getting pick up on press releases. We started getting picked up by the news media.
We come up to early July, and we formally start a countdown. We announce it on Facebook, with a date that says 7-15-13: that was Monday, July 15th was going to be our comeback, on the marketplace. All we did, again, in those same three markets: New York, Chicago and L.A., we put out some gigantic billboards in some really key locations. On that billboard all you saw was an enormous 40-foot size Twinkie with the date. That was it. We didn't say anything else. Just the logo, the date, and a Twinkie. That started picking up buzz. All of a sudden, people are taking pictures and posting it on their own social medial channels, getting the word out. At the same time we did that, we parallel pathed some early product samples and sent them out to influencers: so, Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Conan.
The plan was working fantastic. We had this bubbling expectation for that Monday. The social media was just alive. We were starting to bake product again. We were building inventory. Customers were excited. The small team had grown from 20-something people across the organization, to probably, where we had a handful of people in critical slots, the sales guys were closing deals, to get back on shelf. Everything was lining up really pretty good, and we were feeling really, really good about that Monday.
We're like, "Oh. Okay. You know. They must have not been able to hold the inventory. They panicked. Something else happened." Another account then, out in the Pacific Northwest did the same thing that next morning. We got a phone call from a very, very, very large retailer about what they were going to do with their thousands of pallets. They're like, "You know what? We want to be the first nationwide. We want to be out there." We're like, Oh, you know, this is just going to go crazy. What's going to happen? Walmart went ahead and put some pallets out, on Friday to see what would happen; their public displays. Their displays had 312 boxes of Twinkies and Cupcakes on these displays. In those couple of stores they sold out almost immediately; couldn't believe it. We're like, "Oh please, can you at least hold it until Sunday night, or Sunday afternoon? We got the date, we got the date."
They go ahead and push out product all 4,000 Supercentre's nationwide, on a Saturday morning. Eight o'clock we get the notice, "Hey, we're pushing them out right now. We're sending notes to all of our store managers everywhere." Here in Kansas City, I get a phone call. I'm in my car. I'm immediately driving to Walmart's here in town, as they're getting pushed out, to see what's going on. I go to the one over on Shawnee Mission Parkway, and it's little before 10:00, the display is already out on the floor. It is almost completely cleaned out. We hear back from Walmart that they are 100% sold out within two hours. Four thousand stores, each with 300-plus boxes blend of Twinkies, and Cupcakes, and Donettes. Sold out, nationwide. We'd been baking all this stuff, for about a week. We're on a skeleton crew. We still aren't fully staffed up yet. We don't have all our production lines back up and going. We're in major panic mode.
Is NBC going to cancel? Are we going to be able to bake enough product and refill these stores in this next week, if they don't cancel, what's going to happen? We're in major panic mode. We call NBC, we tell them what's happened. They said, "You know what? We're still going to do this big celebration event. We're still going to celebrate in Rockefeller Plaza. We're gonna have this big, big event. Everything's still a go. Just keep baking cake." (sigh) Okay. It's happening. Maybe everything's not ruined. We'll kind of see what happens. Because we've got this big plan on Monday morning. We're going to have a truck painted red, with a cupcake on one side, a giant Twinkie on the other; the Hostess logo on there. We were going to drive into Rockefeller Plaza, announce the comeback and have a pretty nice PR event, of some type.
The week before, we were looking through everything. I came up and said, we ought to put the logo on top of the truck too, as well. Agency was going, "Why don't we do that?" That's an extra $1,000 to pay the top of the truck. Again, remember, we're doing this on a shoestring budget. Every penny counts. We're watching everything that we're doing. You know what? I said, "You know what? We're going to be driving this truck through Manhattan. There's gonna be thousands of people above Rockefeller Plaza, looking down on this whole piece. We at least, need to have a visual on the top, so people know what it is; they don't think it's just a regular food truck of some type. It's a mobile kitchen, I don't want to go down there. They see Hostess, maybe we'll get more people out of the buildings to come down.
What we didn't know, is what was going to happen next. The truck starts driving in at 6:30-7am, into New York City. The Today Show puts their traffic helicopter up in the air, and instead of monitoring traffic, of what's in the bridge going across, they have the helicopter tracking the Hostess truck. They're doing a live shot from the air, and you can see the Hostess logo on the top of the truck. We're like, "Oh! Yes!" We couldn't buy that, right? They're tracking it coming in. ABC knew that we had gone with NBC on this, so, Good Morning America put their helicopter in the air, as well. Now we, not one, but two helicopters following the truck into New York City for the launch event. We couldn't absolutely believe ... It was just phenomenal! Absolutely!
The truck comes into town, approaches Rockefeller Plaza. The ABC helicopter takes off and goes back to traffic. Along the way, they had picked up Al Roker. We've got Al on the truck, driving in to give out Twinkies to everybody in the audience. We'd been giving out t-shirts and getting people all hyped up about this. NBC had hyped it up, on the Friday before. They had mentioned that they were going to be giving out Twinkies. They had hundreds, if not a few thousand people there in Rockefeller Plaza waiting. We gave out probably 10,000 Twinkies, over the course of a day there, just getting the word out and relaunch that whole piece. The entire event goes off flawlessly. The agencies did a fantastic job managing that. Disaster averted. If anything, it became even more of a hype because people had seen the product in Walmart. People knew it was coming back, and so now we had even a bigger launch, then we had thought.
We were just beyond ecstatic. Fantastic. End of day one. We survived. Somehow. On the piece. We knew we weren't done yet. We had just relaunched this one brand, but we still had a lot of work to do. Right? The truck then goes on a nation-wide tour, from there to help celebrate. We drive to Chicago, and participate in the Pitchfork Music Festival. Then we go out to Los Angeles, participate in some fairs and music festivals out there, over the next eight weeks, we take the truck all across the country to help celebrate. We drop in on move-in days, at some of the colleges across the country. We dropped into some state fairs, we dropped into a motorcycle rally, even. Right? They got Harley's everywhere, and here comes the Twinkies. Right in the middle of it, giving out our products.
We started this whole program just an experiential type marketing piece, put product back in people's hands, so they believed that it was the same Twinkie they always had. It was the same Cupcake they had always had. To know that it was the same product. That was key! The whole relaunch was based upon the premise that people would believe that it was the same product. A lot of people would say, "You know, it's not going to be the same product. They're going to do something to it. It's going to be dramatically different. It's not going to be the same thing." It was vital that when people tried the product, it was the exact same product. "Yep, that is the Twinkie I remember. They did it." Because that's what we were doing. We were launching the same product. The same product that was on the shelf a year prior, on that piece.
But you had to overcome all these doubters, and everything. In addition to the truck tour, we did a lot of other things too, as well. Like I talked about, we did the product sampling at concerts and football games, and college campuses. We did a lot of product placement. We were in the X-Men movie that came out, a little bit later on. We partnered with Despicable Me, and the minions, because after all, minions look like Twinkies, right? Is it minions look like Twinkies, or Twinkies look like minions? I haven't really decided which one came first. It's kind of the chicken, or the egg.
We wanted to have that attitude of L.L. Cool J. again, all that kind of stuff. That's what we had to do. We aligned ourselves with properties, with programs, with events, all centered on that kind of stuff. We re-launched the company for the next 12 weeks, totally around that whole piece. We were completely sold out. We couldn't even launch the entire product line until January. Little, by little we'd get zingers out, and then a couple of weeks later we'd be able to add in Snowballs. It became this rolling launch piece. Instead of all 20-30 of your favorite products out on shelf again, it became a couple every couple of weeks because we were selling so much cake. We'd never sold so much cake before. The company was selling more cake then we did when we were open prior. It's just absolutely phenomenal.
Our next logical location was over here on I-35 on the S-curves, right here, on that piece. A million people saw that, driving back and forth, through Kansas City, to all parts of the country as well, as well as all of us here locally. Our flagship bakeries actually done in Emporia, Kansas. That's 90 miles south of here, too. Hostess is vitally important to this state, on that piece. Not only was the brand important to the town itself, and bringing it back and being a big part of that, also. Twinkies and Cupcakes, they're being baked 90 minutes down the highway.
Businesses are in existence, because you're solving a problem, that somebody has, on that piece. In the case of Twinkies and Cupcakes, and so forth, people want a very simple carefree fun snack they can share with family and friends. That's what we stood for, and we understood that. You need to understand what is the problem you're trying to solve. Too many times I've heard executives say, "I wouldn't do this. I wouldn't do that. I don't like that color." They're internalizing their own beliefs on that product, when they may not be the right audience. If you're a very well off, 60 year old executive, and you're selling product that is targeted to say, teenagers or something else like that, you've got to think and be like a teen, on that whole piece.
You could be financially brilliant, but you need to understand what's going on there. One thing that was really, really great about this, was in working with the ownership, they trusted that we understood that consumer, and that we were doing a product, we were baking a product for them, and advertising it to them, in their voice. First off, know your brand and what you're trying to do with that.
But, if you have that trust and that transparency, you know you're all working for the same end-goal, you work through those things, you find a common ground, you figure out what the right thing to do is, and you move forward. Right? First, know your brand. Second, you've got to have those great partnerships. I'm fortunate that I had both of those in this relaunch. The last thing, you have to do more than you think you can. We were told frequently and often during the winter, going through the whole bankruptcy due diligence process, selling off the assets, "You know what, you can't get it done. You're not going to be successful. There's no way you can hit back to school timing."
We sold off over 20 different brands of cake and bread, during that whole due diligence process. We beat everybody back to market, by at least four or eight weeks. In some cases, by months. We determined up front, we were going to be successful. We determined we were going to do more than what anybody said that we could do. You have to believe that. You get to a point you go, "God, I can't go any faster. I can't do this!" You know what? "Can't" was not a word that was allowed. Get that out of your vocabulary. Instead, focus on what ... Instead of saying, "I can't do that." Say, "You know what? I'm going to do this. I'm going to get around it this way. I'm going to overcome this hurdle by doing that." You have to believe in yourself, and if you've got that brand, and you've got great partners, and you're all believing you're going to do bigger and better, and more than ever before, and don't listen to the naysayers, you will achieve your own greatest comebacks.
Businesses are a lot like that. You get to the point where, you know what, you've got to start letting go and trusting some of the people to do some things. A small one or two shop operator could become five, ten or fifteen. A fifteen shop operator that maybe has still enough, but he can kind of maintain and control it, you know what has to grow. I talked about Walmart earlier. Sam Walton did not create the largest most successful retail operation in the world, in the history of all time, based upon believing that he had to control every single store in every single moment. He empowered his store managers to make a lot of decisions, in that piece. If we had that kind of trust in organization and these small businesses can then grown, the growth that they will achieve, far beyond anything that they could do, if they felt they could do it all on their own.
Too many people over-engineer. To me, I watch what Apple does, and I think about that whole simple design, and how to execute that. The last one is one that I've recently come across the last couple of years, for personal reasons, is Enjoy Life foods. Enjoy Foods is one of the free-from foods sold in the U.S. By free-from the eight most common allergies in the U.S. This was started back in the early 2000's by two individuals. Recently it sold to Mondelez, which is the new company that Oreos and all that kind of stuff are out of. They do 30-plus million dollars in revenue. From just a dream, trying to solve a problem. Right? Everything they did, they didn't spend a ton of money on TV advertising to get launched. They didn't think like a big budget, they focused on one thing first, which is quality of the product. Then they then focused on solving a problem.
If you notice here, there's a theme across everything I'm talking about here. Right? When I talked about the lessons learned and these things right here, quality of the product, simplistically of design, and you're solving a problem. If you can get that figured out, then you're going to end up making these incredible products that people just simply fall in love with. Those are some of the things that I'll look at. But again, I absorb everything I can get ahold of.
With social media these days, you can ... It's free to put up a Facebook page. For a few thousand dollars a week, you can start advertising and targeting and grow your brand. You don't have to go out and blow a ton of money to create something. The American Dream is to own your own business. I was really fortunate in my dad owned his own ad agency. When I was a geeky 12 year old, I was the one following him along, just to see stuff. I understand that whole passion for client service, that passion for solving other people's needs and problems. I would see him at nights and on weekends bring work home, and I would hang out with him some, and watch him. That's how I got my passion to marketing probably because I was hanging out with him all the time. For all the small business owners out there, keep doing what you're doing, believe in what you're doing. Right? Because you never know. You may have the next Twinkie, and not even know it yet.