Bakers Journal

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The Final Proof: January-February 2013


January 31, 2013
By Stephanie Ortenzi

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The fall of a superbrand, all the emotional memories tied up in it and the cost of not taking care of business 

The fall of a superbrand, all the emotional memories tied up in it and the cost of not taking care of business 

Not just any box of Twinkies,” rages Woody Harrelson, playing a crazed psychopath in the 2009 film Zombieland. “It’s the last box of Twinkies that anyone will enjoy in the whole universe!” he adds, snapping a pair of garden shears destined to create a bloody mess in true slasher-film fashion.
If crazy were an emotion, we could also call it Twinkie, and not just because it became the nickname for a diminished-capacity defence in a 1978 murder case. Powerful emotion is attached to Twinkies, and we saw clearly what that looked like on Nov. 16, when Hostess filed for bankruptcy for the second time in three years, this time most likely for good.

Crippled by debt, poor labour relations, and failure to innovate, invest in marketing or reinvest in infrastructure (their shipping fleet was crumbling), the company was no longer viable and pulled the plug on 18,500 jobs across the country, proof again that size is not a failsafe in business.

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Hostess was posting $2.5 billion in annual sales, $68 million of it in Twinkies alone. Yet sales were flat, said newly inducted restructuring CEO Greg Rayburn. Despite the numbers, the company couldn’t pay its bills. It hadn’t paid last year’s pension contributions, which were $100 million. In fact, the company was telling its workforce that it wanted to cut future annual pension contributions by 75 per cent, and that it wanted workers to take wage cuts and a decrease in health benefits by 17 per cent. Workers voted to strike.

On the company’s part, crisis management over seven years had failed. Arguably, one of its biggest problems was its workforce, which is organized into 12 separate unions, with 360 collective bargaining agreements: plenty of fuel to flame the U.S.’s growing anti-union movement.

On the unions’ part, there’s no question that they ignored the fatal consequences of their pushback.

Within 12 hours of the Hostess announcement, some left-leaning sentiments led 24,000 Americans to sign a petition pleading with the government to “nationalize the Twinkie industry.” People were asking, why GM and not Hostess? We might find out in the coming months.

In the meantime, we have lingering images from news reports with shot after shot of empty shelves. They looked a lot like the shelves raided for emergency supplies before Hurricane Sandy hit. Among other reasons, that qualifies the Hostess story as a disaster. In the reports, one after another, people told their Twinkie stories, like the mother of two, who was desperate for her last chance “to have one more Twinkie bite.” When her eldest turned 10, she gave him a ceremonial Twinkie to eat. Her daughter turns 10 next year, and she will be hanging onto some cakes to keep the family tradition going.

Even Harvard Business Review blogger Timothy Halloran said that he felt the Hostess news compelled him “to round up the kids and find one of the last remaining Twinkies on the planet.” The task took him across the city of Atlanta and into the next day. “For better or worse,” he writes, “my wife and I had a relationship with the Twinkie brand.”

Brand specialist Robert Passikof says the Twinkie is “a real brand,” one that’s felt and that people emotionally bond with. I’d argue that those empty shelves make the Twinkie a superbrand. It’s been kept alive by nostalgia, compounded over a couple of generations at least, from memories of lunchboxes and afterschool snacks, to munchie relief, sugar fixes and adult guilty pleasures.

Despite the run on cakes, they didn’t really disappear. A boatload surfaced online. On eBay alone, 4,400 listings offered Twinkies for sale from $7.50 to $20 million a box. Free shipping.

The Hostess story tells us that we don’t need more superbrands. Those eBay cakes are going to go off. Despite the notion that Twinkies have an infinite shelf life, those last case lots were actually “best before” the first week of December.

We need solvency. To achieve that close to home, we can start by looking at the emotions our customers are having surrounding our products. One way is to watch the physical reaction of a customer whose favourite item has sold out.

We also need to protect the means by which we supply our products with a healthy, well-oiled infrastructure. We need to invest in the longevity of our businesses with sturdy marketing, and we need to keep our financial heath sound.

A quick side note for Canadian Twinkie crazies, er, devotees: Vachon will continue to make Twinkies here in Canada. Time will tell if we will add Twinkies to our cross-border smuggling, alongside prescription drugs.

CORRECTION: In my last column, I misidentified a website. Its proper name is www.globalfoodsafetyresource.com.


Stephanie Ortenzi (www.pistachiowriting.com ) is a Toronto-based food marketing writer.


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