07/18/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Twinkies -- A Sweet Brand

Photo: (CC) Larry D. Moore

The Twinkie, "the golden sponge cake with creamy filling" conjures up memories of post WWII moms laying out the treat to the delight of fawning children. That saccharine scenario has prevailed for some 80 years and continues this week, despite a short hiccup. That's brand endurance.

The Twinkie began in Illinois in 1930 with a banana cream filling, but when bananas were rationed during the war, it switched to the signature vanilla cream, which has reigned for more than half a century. In the '80s, Hostess introduced the short-lived Fruit and Cream filling, and in 2005, it brought back banana as part of a King Kong film promotion. With a 20 percent uptick in sales, banana filling was back for good.

Twinkies have weathered The Great Depression, the German invasion of Poland, the bombing of Hiroshima, the Civil Rights Movement, the Beatles, Roe vs. Wade, disco, the Dot-Com boom, 9-11 and Justin Bieber. Along the way, the Twinkie has become a true American icon: a lunchbox staple; a deep-fried treat at country fairs; an urban legend of indefinite shelf life; an entry in the 1999 Millennium Time Capsule; a single-food diet; and even, a legal defense.

So, it's no wonder that in 2012, when parent company Hostess filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced it would suspend production of the snack cake because of lagging sales and inability to come to terms with its two unions -- there was a hue and cry of epic proportions. Legions of fans took to Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit lamenting the demise of their favorite glucose drug of choice. Even "celebrities" from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Donald Trump got into the fray. Home-baked capitalists began hoarding them, banking on big returns on eBay.

The end of the Twinkie spawned evangelistic fan reaction and consumed popular culture, motivating private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. to buy the brand and, using non-unionized workers, put Twinkies back on the shelf again during this summer of our re-contentment.

Why has Twinkie become the ever-surviving cockroach of unhealthy snacks and desserts? Because of its almost-unparalleled brand equity. Despite trends toward health-conscious foods or gourmet expressions of guilty pleasures, the Twinkie is a brand master of the dopamine fix and nostalgic aura. Among brands, it's S-W-E-E-T.

  • Tells a story
  • Conveys a clear message
  • Connects to audiences emotionally
  • Delivers value
  • Is consistent
  • Generates loyalty

The private equity firms recognized that even mammoth financial investments to create a new brand couldn't duplicate Twinkie's hard-earned brand equity. Much smarter to leverage the stalwart brand. They understood that creating and expressing a clear brand with authentic meaning and value is one of the most important things you can do when you start a business or manage a product. And, it's one of the most difficult.

It's the assessment of a brand's equity -- what the brand means in the marketplace and the loyalty it engenders with its target audience -- that gives it monetary value. Companies are bought and sold based on that brand value, just like the Twinkie. Even your Twitter account and Facebook Page have values ascribed to them based on the number and nature of your followers and fans and their engagement with your posts. There's an algorithm that determines your social brand value.

Susan Schreter, a venture capitalist, small business funding expert and author of Start On Purpose: Everything You Need To Know and Do to Startup with Strength, says the fundamentals for start up businesses to generate brand equity with lasting financial value are creating brands "that stand for something" and managing brands' value so "they can sell themselves" and you can "charge higher prices."

When James Alexander Dewar, the manager at Continental Bakery, used strawberry shortcake machines to fill the cakes with banana during the berry's off-season to achieve more efficiency, he couldn't have imagined he was creating a signature American brand that would sell for the lion's share of $410 million and prevail for three-quarters of a century... and counting.

So what's the outlook for the new, old Twinkie? The biggest threat to the Twinkie's survival is that it's breaking the "consistency" attribute of good brands. It's smaller than the original Twinkie, weighing in at 38.5 grams with 135 calories; the original Twinkie weighed 42.5 grams with 150 calories. Will audiences notice and care? The new Twinkies also have a longer shelf life of 45 days, up from the 26 days. Likely, that will help the brand, feeding the Twinkie's kitchiness as the indestructible snack. Perhaps its infinite shelf life can translate into infinite brand equity.

Is there such a thing as an immortal brand? Probably God, and just maybe, the Twinkie.