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Hostess Twinkies and Three Lessons About Brand & Innovation

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Twinkies and the Hostess family of sweet treats that included Ding Dongs, Devil Dogs, Ring Dings and Ho Hos died this month. Bankrupt after eight decades of operation. Hostess produced an estimated 500 million Twinkies and 127 million loaves of Wonder Bread a year. These products have filled kids lunch boxes for decades. Baby boomers, Gen Xers and their Gen Y kids grew up with these packages of Americana-fixtures on their supermarket and kitchen shelves as well as in movies such as Ghost Busters, Zombieland and WALL-E. In short, Twinkies have had a significant portion of consumer mindshare for more than 80 years. I am not going to tout their taste or advocate Twinkie hoarding, but the death of Twinkies provides valuable lessons to brand managers and marketers.

How many chief marketing officers would give 10 years worth of their annual budgets to have the emotional connection with consumers that many of Hostess's products have enjoyed? When GM was nearing bankruptcy, how many consumers rushed to eBay to purchase a used, let alone a new, Chevy? Compare that with people who emptied store shelves for Twinkies commanding nearly 25-times their original a day after declaring bankruptcy. And mindshare? How many companies can claim a Ding Dong's worth of mindshare across nearly five generations of consumers? Emotion, awareness, cross-generational appeal and near ubiquitous distribution -- what could be missing?

Hostess's demise was the result of many factors that converged this month, but here are three lessons about brand and innovation to be considered:

Brands must prove themselves everyday -- How many companies proudly declare to consumers that their firms have been operating for 25, 50, even 100-plus years to demonstrate that 'you can trust us and we will be here'? Twinkies were around for 80 years, and they were even rumored to have a shelf life of 100 years, but that did not seem to help them survive a changing marketplace. How many banks, retailers, airlines with grand legacies have vaporized in the last decade and are now only fond memories on the dusty pages of decades old Life Magazines? Just being in business a long time is no longer important to consumers. Rather, it has become a punch line. Twinkies and Wonder Bread have been part of nearly every consumer's life experience - and now they are gone. How much faith will consumers have with less familiar brands with little daily or emotional connection, e.g., financial services, insurance? Consumer's demand relevance and value everyday... your proud history is, well, history.

Expectations change so should brands -- Hostess brands were familiar to all, but they did not adapt to changing consumer expectations. Growing public health concerns made Twinkies a junk food icon and target of nutrition advocates' ire ultimately affecting consumer purchase decisions. McDonalds is a favorite target of public health advocates but that assault has been blunted by the introduction of salads, fruit, oatmeal and other 'healthier' options without abandoning the flagship Big Mac. Broadening the product portfolio to address health may have extended Hostess's life even while consumer appetites for Twinkies waned.

Innovate or die -- Despite demonstrating little product innovation, Hostess survived for decades. Today consumers expect something new at Internet speed. While Apple is becoming a trite business case, their speed to deliver a new tweak or an entirely new product has taught consumers not to be surprised at the new, but simply to expect better, faster, cheaper as routine, not revolutionary. Even other baked goods brands from Oreos to Fig Newtons have found ways to add more cream, add flavors or infuse some health claim or snack concept to fit within the consumer's ever shrinking time budget to eat a full meal.

The saying 'the greatest thing since sliced bread' is attributed to Wonder Bread's founding. Consumers and brand leaders are learning that greatness has a shorter shelf life these days. Brand managers and chief marketing officers must learn that while consumers may love you and have fond memories of you, they may not like you enough to buy. Brands cannot rely on their legacy, no matter what their connection is with the consumer -- they must continuously adapt to changing expectations and rapidly evolving public attitudes to survive and learn to innovate in real-time if they wish to thrive.