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April 17, 2009

Are Product Sales Slumping? This Campaign for Cheez-It Snacks Shows You How PR Can Reignite Sales

By Frank Zeccola

If you're a PR pro who develops campaigns for products of any kind, you know you have to be at the top of your game constantly — because consumer tastes change over time. A product that's flying off the shelves today could fall flat tomorrow. Something better comes out. Something newer, bigger, with cooler features and more benefits.

And you could be called on to bring ailing product sales back to life.

So what do you do when your product is no longer the "it" item? Or when no one's buying it?

Hopefully, your clients or execs are ahead of the game and have research in place to spot downward trends well in advance of the ultimate crash. If not, you should encourage them to. The following campaign will show you why: You can save it. Yes, PR can take a product bordering on consumer irrelevance and create so much buzz that it starts flying off the shelves again.

To find out how, read on for a case study of Hunter Public Relations's work with Kellogg's Cheez-It snack, in which they took a product that some execs were calling "insignificant" — and ultimately outsold any other product in the $3.5 million cracker category. Their experience will show you step-by-step the secrets to how an effective PR campaign can reignite sales for a slumping product.

The challenge: Inspire consumers to begin eating up Cheez-Its again. The big cheeses of the Cheez-It brand came to Hunter PR in 2007 explaining that the product was losing relevance among its key target audiences. Some execs thought the snack was altogether insignificant. "They wanted to increase relevance and awareness among their key audiences," says Hunter PR senior vice president Amy Coles.

It was then that Cheez-It execs presented the message that would drive a new marketing platform: "Big Cheese Taste in Every Little Bite."

Build a PR campaign around that, the Cheez-It brass told Coles and her team.

The slogan is based on the Cheez-It recipe: The snacks have real cheese baked into each cracker. "That's how it gets its big cheese taste," Coles says.

"And they came to us to get the word out."

It's a clever little phrase, and Coles and her team knew that great PR campaigns are always built on great messaging. They began brainstorming ways to bring it to life. "We landed on a pun on the words 'Big Cheese,'" she says.

They began thinking about all the "Big Cheeses" of American history, past and present. It was then that an enormous idea hit. They came up with the basis for a campaign that would literally drip with "big cheese" imagery: A cheese sculpture of Mount Rushmore.

The strategy: A mobile, touring cheese sculpture of Mount Rushmore—tied to the Fourth of July holiday. Crazy as the idea might seem at first, the Hunter team ate it up. They commissioned well-known cheese carver Troy Landwehr to "carve America's very first Big Cheeses into a 700-pound block of cheese," Coles says.

That's right, the profiles of U.S. presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln were to be carved — not out of granite from the Black Hills of South Dakota, but out of real cheese.

From there, the team wondered if they could make it mobile and transport it to key cities across the U.S. to literally bring the cheesy Mount Rushmore to their audience's doorsteps.

The "Cheez-It Big Cheese Tour" was born.

It would be a unique, visual story that could capture the nation's imagination: "The idea of someone carving a cheese sculpture was quite unique," Coles says. "You see ice sculptures all the time, and you also see a lot of sand castles. But cheese is unique."

Roadblocks to success: Hauling a monstrous block of cheese around the country. But, of course, dragging a 700-pound block of cheese across the country isn't exactly easy-cheesy. They would have to figure out a way to pull it off without the cheese melting, falling apart or getting moldy — and they would have to put a plan in place to handle any number of unpredictable problems they might encounter along the way.

"The biggest challenge was logistics," Coles says. "It was the first year we embarked on this program, and we not only had to get a 700-pound cheese carving from Wisconsin — we had to get it to and from every single city we toured. There were definitely obstacles, such as, how to transport it — and how to keep the cheese fresh."

The solution: An icebox on wheels. To overcome these logistical challenges, Coles and her team devised a plan to cart the cheese sculpture around in a refrigerated glass-windowed tour bus. In addition, Coles knew they couldn't be on the road for too long. "The tour had to be completed during a one-month window," she says. "That short timeframe helped."

They unveiled the "Big Cheese" sculpture at Times Square in New York around the Fourth of July holiday. "The patriotic carvings and Fourth of July peg helped us get the attention of editors who were looking for something different to write about around the holiday," Coles said. "That gave it a nice media hook."

Then, from July 15 through August 15, "Mount Rushmore" swung through ten U.S. cities as part of the "Cheez-It Big Cheese Tour." Stops included St. Louis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Detroit/Battle Creek, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Boston.

The results: Nearly 2,000 media stories spark a comeback as Cheez-It takes its place among the Big Cheeses of the cracker category. The tour landed 1,500 stories in top media, including hits in The New York Post, The Washington Post, CNN "Headline News," CBS "The Early Show," InTouch magazine and more.

"We had this incredible visual, and it really caught the media's attention," Coles says. "And consumers definitely came away from the story thinking, 'Big Cheese.' This PR campaign really laddered up the strategic platform of the Cheez-It brand. It ultimately conveyed to the consumer what Cheez-It asked us to deliver."

In addition, overall Cheez-It sales increased significantly, outpacing category growth of the $3.5 million cracker category. "The media results were part of an overall marketing plan that showed an increase in sales," Coles says. "PR brought it to life in a way that marketing couldn't."

Secrets for success: Read on as Coles offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Gold in Food & Beverage at the 2008 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity:

1. Make the publicity work for the product: Tie all hooks and stunts back to the brand. "The real key to media success in this campaign went beyond just having a holiday media hook," she says. "It also made sense for the Cheez-It brand. Reporters didn't questions a 700-pound cheese sculpture — because it made sense in the context of the Cheez-It brand and the 'Big Cheese Taste in Every Little Bite' messaging. The simpler the idea, the better."

2. Build a multidimensional story to manage risk and client expectations. "Know your risks going in so that you can adequately plan and manage expectations," she recommends. For example: "In this campaign, we risked putting all of our eggs in one basket with a single event. What if there was breaking news that day? Any time you do a staged event, your biggest risk is running into breaking news happening the day of the event. You can plan ahead all you want, but if there's breaking news that day, your event isn't going to get as much coverage."

The advantage of tours, multi-tiered campaigns, multiple story angles and multidimensional stories, then, is that you broaden the appeal of your story to avoid any all-your-eggs-in-one-basket situations. That worked particularly well in this story, which included several angles, from the patriotic, Fourth of July holiday angles and the great food story with a well-known cheese carver to the cheese-on-wheels bus tour.

3. Think ahead: Put a plan in place to manage logistical invariables. "Be prepared for anything," she adds. "As you're executing an event, you have to be able to troubleshoot those last-minute problems efficiently."

WINNER'S PROFILE: Hunter Public Relations is an award-winning, marketing public relations firm that develops and executes programs that help brands achieve their sales and marketing objectives. Utilizing a creative and strategic combination of public relations, publicity and influencer outreach approaches, our firm of 60 practitioners partners with the country's most recognizable brands and companies including: Kraft Foods, Kellogg's, Diageo, Hasbro, E&J Gallo and 3M — and helps them become relevant in the hearts and minds of target consumers. Utilizing the power of the news and entertainment outlets, events, sponsorships and atmospheres, consumers discover or rediscover the brands and products we serve.

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