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The Story Of Oreo: How An Old Cookie Became A Modern Marketing Personality

In 2013, Oreo changed its image, and maybe changed advertising, with a real-time marketing coup. While its famous creative—culturally relevant tweets and Facebook posts—seemed simple and spontaneous, the social success was the result of an overhaul of a large CPG company’s marketing philosophy and processes. CMO Dana Anderson and the marketing team behind the Oreo phenomenon discuss how they made the transition from self-involved advertiser to nimble content creator.

The Story Of Oreo: How An Old Cookie Became A Modern Marketing Personality

Oreo's 100th Year Celebration Flash Mob

[Photo: Courtesy of Mondelēz International]

Not every cookie has something to say.

"I think there are a lot of cookies that don't have much personality at all. You couldn't even look deep inside them and see what they stand for," Jill Baskin tells me, as if it’s totally reasonable to consider the intellectual depth, flair and conviction of a bite-size dessert the same way you would a friend or lover. Baskin is sitting below a painting of a nondescript cracker enshrined in a regal black frame. Despite the quotidian, and middle-American, content of the painting, its Renaissance style art direction looks more fitting for the Louvre. But in Paris, we are not. It’s New Jersey, atop a freshly mowed suburban hill in the privately gated office compound of the $35 billion snacking empire, Mondelez International. The stars and stripes flap alongside a Mondelez flag at the entrance, as if snacking had officially colonized its own country.

If there’s anyone who is qualified to diagnose a cookie’s cocktail party-worthiness, it’s Baskin, who leads advertising for America’s most famous cookie, the Oreo. She knows her cookie intimately, quirks and all. "It's a weird looking cookie," Baskin, Mondelez's senior director of marketing communications for global biscuits admits, like someone who proudly flaunts Instagram photos of a homely cat. "It's black and white. It's a little bitter. It's a little odd."

A few years ago Mondelez marketers, who were then Kraft marketers, began to question whether Oreo, the company's oldest, flagship, cookie, even had a personality. At the time, there was no Mondelez, only Kraft, then a 109-year-old consumer packaged goods company that had become a motley tapestry of acquisitions. In 2012, management decided to split the company in two: kitchen staple brands like Philadelphia Cream Cheese and mayo stayed with the mothership at Kraft, while Mondelez, as the newly-formed company was named, took its sweetest and saltiest snacking treats like Ritz Crackers, Sour Patch Kids, and Oreos—the ones with the most rapid global growth potential. Mondelez (the name is a quasi portmanteau that can be roughly translated, as "delicious world") is intended to be what happens when the fastest part of a slow machine breaks free, much like a space shuttle jettisoning its fuel tank after takeoff to achieve orbit. The new company’s aspiration, in the words of Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld, is to pair scale with velocity in order to become "the world’s biggest startup." (For the record, this is also the claim of other large, unwieldy corporations, including Dell and Yahoo).

In 2013, all of a sudden, Oreo was the standard bearer for "real-time marketing." With a few deft social media moves—including a game-changing Super Bowl tweet—the cookie became the crumbly, creamy embodiment of the conversational, in-touch brand. In an era in which brands were told they should be acting like people, Oreo had suddenly developed a real personality. Buried beneath the famous tweet, and the wave of publicity that followed, of course, was the fact that none of this was sudden. The reorganization of Kraft was followed by a long-term effort to overhaul hidebound systems and processes and develop a new set of skills to take a flagship brand from old school advertiser to modern content creator.

Shades of Oreo Advertisement from 1988Photo: Courtesy of Mondelēz International

Out Of The Kitchen

Five years ago, en route to becoming "a startup," Kraft’s marketers began identifying and trying to break its worst big company habits. Kraft's then-CMO Mary Beth West began testing its brands’ advertising and discovered that if the company ever landed on a psychiatrist's couch, it would have likely been deemed a classic narcissist. "Our strategies tended to be all about us. So, you know, our consumer wakes up in the morning and they are thinking about cream cheese and then they say, ‘Oh, maybe I'll wear some silver clothes because it will match the tub [of Philadelphia cream cheese]." And then they say, ‘Oh, I'm feeling smooth,’" says West, who later became Mondelez’s CMO for a time. "I mean it was really scary how we were only thinking about us and our brands. Not playing any role out there in the in the real world."

It turned out the company’s marketers had quite literally been trapping their brands in the pantry and their conversational ability reflected that. And Oreo, having been straightjacketed in repetitive, formulaic advertising for decades, had virtually no social skills. "I remember conversations about not being able to show anything [in a TV spot] that didn’t take place inside a kitchen," says Jill Applebaum, a creative director who worked at Oreo’s longtime ad agency, Draftfcb (she later moved to JWT New York). "In one spot there was a plate of cookies and a glass of milk and we wanted to set it to music, but the brand manager at the time said the music was distracting. The spot was about a boy who sets up cookies and milk and goes away and his dad comes downstairs, there’s nothing to be distracted by! These were the kinds of conversations we had."

The reality was, Oreo had the potential to be the life of the party. The treat had been around for almost 100 years. It was born the same year the South Pole was discovered and the Titanic sank. It had witnessed a dozen presidencies, endured technological breakthroughs, countless fashion trends, and survived diet crazes. And maybe, just maybe, it might have something scintillating to contribute to culture if it focused on something other than its own circumscribed existence staring down the barrel of a glass of milk. That’s when CMO West had the epiphany: "We loved to look in the mirror," she says. "And the power of looking out the window was that we said this brand can behave in and drive culture."

Oreo's Tweet during the Superbowl 2013 Blackout

A Cookie Gets Real(Time)

By now, everyone in adland knows about Oreo’s celebrity as an agile, culturally prolific marketer. First there was Daily Twist, 100 days of social media acrobatics that saw Oreo's creative team cast the cookie in a series of trending news stories and cultural moments. The first in the series of Facebook posts was also the biggest—an image of a multi-layered, rainbow Oreo in celebration of Gay Pride week earned reams of media coverage, appreciation from fans, and, of course, the token backlash. Then Oreo’s Twist, Lick, Dunk mobile app, the rare adver-game that proved so popular, it became the number-one game in more than 15 countries—and actually made Oreo money. Then Oreo won the Super Bowl of advertising, the Super Bowl, when within minutes of an awkward stadium blackout during the 2013 Niners-Ravens matchup, it captivated the game’s captive audience with a single, whimsical tweet.

The complex journey taken by Mondelez’s marketers to get to that place, and to that seemingly spontaneous approach, is a lesser known story. "It’s like being a midwife," Dana Anderson replied this summer when I ask her to translate what exactly her job as Mondelez’s SVP of marketing strategy and communications actually means. With her closely cropped German schoolboy haircut, throwback 1950’s eyeglasses, and a Japanese-style white tented cotton shirt, Anderson looks more like a MOMA curator than a CPG marketer. In 2009, West—a Kraft lifer—hired Anderson to push her marketers to look out the proverbial window. If there was anyone who understood the safe, stuck, narrow marketing culture of Kraft, it was Anderson. Anderson spent much of her thirty year career in the agency business running Chicago creative shops like DDB, working with Kraft brands like Oscar Mayer and Miracle Whip as her clients. By bringing Anderson to the inside, West wanted to channel her outspoken, outsider critical eye to help fix what was broken. And the part about advertising and midwifery? Anderson says her job is to give all the parties involved with a brand—from the marketers to the agencies—the confidence to birth smarter, gutsier advertising. "You want these partners to come together and have a great outcome for themselves," says Anderson.

Mondelēz SVP Dana Anderson dictated Mondelēz's push into culture.Photo: Nicholas Calcott

When Anderson arrived her first order of rehab was to move Kraft’s marketers towards that nebulous thing called "culture." Without it, Kraft’s army of inanimate objects would have nothing to stand for, no "cultural fight," as West puts it; a reason to be relevant on social platforms, or lingering in people’s imagination after seeing an ad. "We have a lot of mature brands and culture gives brands rebirth, it breathes life into the room," says Anderson. Historically, when it came to the work, dictums and testing trumped compelling storytelling. Anderson, who rose through the ranks as an agency account planner hired a few of the best planners from the agency world (including Debra Berman, now CMO of JCP) and started an in-house department that added the critical component of culture to the brand strategy process. "Dana backs all the way up down the road," says West. "She is all about ‘you've got to get the strategy right.’ She's like a dog with a bone."

They also started taking Kraft marketers to the industry’s annual Cannes festival, which awards the best creative work in the business. Not only had Kraft marketers never attended or taken home a Cannes Lions, it was unclear if anyone from the company had ever submitted any work to even be considered. "We needed to pull back to say, ‘Let's not look at the work relative to ‘here's the three boards on the table,’ but let's look at the work relative to great work in the world,’" says West. Anderson wanted to rock Kraft’s marketers out of their creative slumber. "Great creative is more effective, it's been proven over and over again," says Anderson. She recalls witnessing firsthand the awakening of one colleague as he walked through the festival gallery. "I’ll never forget it," she says. "He said, ‘You know, I think I’ve been buying mediocre work.'"

Anderson also wanted to put an end to the unhealthy cycles the company’s marketers had with their agencies. Agency partners had grown accustomed to a bureaucratic process that tended to beat any creativity out of an idea. "Typically an agency would meet with the assistant brand manager and get a briefing, and then the creatives would go off and do work, and then they would come back and the assistant brand manager would get it to the place that he or she really loved, and then the brand manager would see it and maybe they'd make some changes. And then, when he or she was happy with it, then the VP might see it, and then they might make some changes and then it might go to the big boss," explains Oreo’s Baskin. Not only could it take more than three months for one piece of work to get approved, putting junior people on the front lines meant there was less creative risk taking. "They tend to be more conservative because they're worried about what their boss will think, so they tend to look not so much at the idea, but, are all the boxes checked?" says Baskin.

Oreo advertisement from 1937Photo: Courtesy of Mondelēz International

Over time the dynamic practically became institutionalized. Anderson ended a number of longtime agency relationships, some of which went back over twenty years. Then to get teams moving at a modern pace with new kinds of agencies, she ran an experiment in which she paired a handful of Kraft’s smaller brands with hot creative shops, a breed they’d never worked with. The teams only had eight weeks to produce a campaign and there would be one designated key decision-maker for each brand who would have to be present at every session. Baskin says the experience awoke the marketers to how toxic their behavior had been to the creative output. "Wear and tear on a creative agency is how you get to worse ideas, when they feel like, ‘Oh, I shouldn't present that because it's just going to get beaten down. I'll just go for the safe idea,’" says Baskin.

In 2012, several months before Mondelez broke off from Kraft, Anderson sought out Bonin Bough. The thirtysomething had grown up in the geekier corners of the marketing world, over the prior decade building the digital practices for two PR firms, then landing himself—and his rising profile—as the head of digital for PepsiCo. Anderson wasn’t looking to hire a digital chief, but rather, was looking to find a new global head of media for Mondelez, a position traditionally populated by a media buyer who brushed most advertising channels aside in favor of television. Bough didn’t have a traditional advertising background, but that was the point. "The shift was I didn't want to hire media person, I want to hire a digital person who understood media," says Anderson.

While Mondelez describes itself as being in the snacking business, it really is in the "impulse" business. Most of the foods it sells—gum, chocolate, cookies—are bought during moments of weakness, like when one has low blood sugar during a trip to Walgreens, or as comforting treats. "We’ve found that people will write down ‘cookie,’ on their shopping list, but not ‘Oreo,’" explains one of the company’s media planners. Like the movie business, music business, and book business before it, it appears snacking is now also experiencing its own technological disruption. In the old world of food shopping, a potential customer would daydream waiting in line, strumming through a People magazine until his gaze eventually found itself locked on a pack of Trident gum, tempted by a bag of Sour Patch Kids, or flirted with by a sleeve or Oreos (all Mondelez brands). Turns out we are as bad as our teenage kids—texting, Facebooking, and emailing while waiting for our turn at the register, eternally distracting us from those indulgent moments of spontaneity. This, in addition to people using their extra cash to purchase a $2 app instead of an empty calorie treat, has left categories like "gum" in a global freefall. "I've never really seen anything quite like this in my entire career," says West. The ability to intercept consumers in that moment—either through mobile devices, or through powerful emotional storytelling that lodges itself in people’s flavor receptors—is the best chance they’ve got.

When Bough arrived in 2012 he used his lack of industry baggage to challenge every media assumption. "I asked questions about things that just didn't seem to make sense because I didn't know. I've never had any of that perspective," says Bough. Most CPGs, including Kraft, had always operated under the mass scale advertising model. That meant money was being spent to get the biggest bang for the lowest buck—typically anchored around TV ads—regardless of what each individual brand was trying to accomplish. Bough’s approach was to flip the process: depending on what the consumer challenge was for each brand, they would design an experience that would deploy the right media channels with the right creative ideas. And, the daunting fact that every marketer faced was, those media channels were only continuing to explode, which meant not only did he and his team need to be on the front lines of what’s next, but so did their media agencies. "When Bonin came in he said, ‘We expect to be ahead of the consumer and we expect our media partners to contribute as much to our creativity and innovation as our creative agencies,’" says Jon Halvorson, who runs Mondelez's media business at Mediavest.

Under the new regime, Mondelez’s marketing dollars, the talent involved, and the media channels would all have to work harder to earn their keep. Like Anderson had done on the creative side, Bough took every media relationship the company had to task to see whose thinking was aligned. "In his first few months we had a meeting and on the spot and he fired one of the agencies who had been with them for years," says Guy Horrocks, CEO of Carnival, a new mobile firm Bough brought into the mix. Bough met with the company’s dozen media agencies, and then consolidated them into two—while overhauling much of the talent—so he could work more flexibly on a global scale. Internally he reset Mondelez’s media team to focus on becoming an "accelerator of business," rather than a purely optimization and money-saving function. Then he approached media entities to negotiate new kinds of deals. Rather than continue the archaic tradition of locking in specific media buys (typically TV) months in advance, he approached partners to build in flexibility required for an increasingly real-time marketing world. He got them to agree to the same good rates, but with the option to move buys across different channels, like mobile and on-demand. "It's always about cost savings and it's never about cost savings," says Bough. "We need to save this money but we also want to think differently about how we approach the world, so that we're not just asking you to sell us cheaper stuff. We're actually asking you to sell us different stuff."

All of this set the stage for Oreo to find its way out of the kitchen. In 2012, to ring in the cookie’s 100th birthday, its longtime ad agency Draftfcb developed a print campaign in the same tired spirit that permeated the brand's previous work. "It was a glass of milk and an Oreo and an iPhone with a picture on it of a grandfather and a grandson smiling at the Oreo. Then, there was confetti on the table," says Darren Moran, who at the time had just joined the agency to become its new creative head. "It was one of the crappiest things I have seen in my life." Even though the ad had already been shot, Moran commissioned new ideas from across the global Draft network. An art director from France submitted a campaign that looked back at 100 years of Oreo, told by morphing the cookie into cultural moments in history from the birth of Cubism to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When they switched the campaign, Oreo got its first taste of what happens when a cookie dips its toe in culture. "People were talking about the marketing as much as they were talking about the cookie," says Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of Oreo’s digital agency 360i, which has teamed with Draftfcb and other Oreo partners on the brand's social marketing hits. The team wanted to figure out how to translate that excitement to social, and bust out of the Mom ghetto Oreo had confined itself to for years. "We realized, ‘Hey, everybody likes Oreos, not just moms with kids. We can talk in a little more adult voice. We've gotten permission to do that. We can be a little cheeky," says Baskin.

The now famous "Daily Twist," as the social media campaign would be called, ended up becoming a boot camp for how Oreo would find its voice. "We came up with the idea for 100 pieces of content in 100 days to make it real time where culture and advertising meet," says Applebaum, who led the creative execution at Draft. Rather than look in the rearview mirror, every morning Oreo would wake up, read the proverbial paper, and acrobatically transform itself into a micro-sculpture of whatever that day’s news was. Chinese panda Shin-Shin has a baby? Check. Mars Rover Lands? Check. ZZ Top releases its first album in nine years? Check. There was virtually nothing the little cookie couldn’t find its way into. By 11am every morning, the DraftFCB team would mock up four timely options based on what they thought were the day’s most culturally resonant headlines. Applebaum and her partner, Megan Sheehan, would narrow it down to two executions, and within hours one would get approved by the client, legal, and corporation communications, for 360i to release via Facebook. "We basically learned," says Bough, "by stumbling, falling, getting back up."

Oreo's Daily Twist for June 25, 2012

Risk It For A Biscuit

While its forward-looking approach has earned the attention of the industry, and its work has struck a chord with the public, it's clear that for Mondelez and its constellation of agencies, this shift has required growing pains. Even though Daily Twist won nearly a dozen industry awards, a few months after pulling off the real-time feat Oreo's US team ended its relationship with its longtime ad agency, Draftfcb (Draft continued to work with Oreo globally). Despite Draft’s impressive performance, Oreo’s marketers say its agency of over two decades wasn’t ready to part with its well-worn formula. "They were being asked to come up with, what's the new thing?" says Baskin. "And they really sort of stalled." Meanwhile, internally, some talent has leaned into the change, while others are protecting their turf. Concedes Anderson, "It’s still a big company and it still has lots of groups of people who have responsibility and feel like ‘You should ask me. I should be included in this decision.’ Yet some of the best work we’ve done is empowering small teams."

Anderson, an animated public speaker who can slip in and out voices as if she were in a Second City improv sketch, has been an outspoken critic of the Agency of Record tradition, the heartbeat of agency profit centers. ("There is nothing like the Dana Anderson show," Twitter’s president of global revenue Adam Bain, who recently brought her in to speak to Twitter’s staff, tells me. "She’s one of the most compelling storytellers in our industry.") Anderson believes the AOR model is not dead, but rather, complacent, bloated, assembly-line client-agency relationships will not survive the next era of advertising. "The old way of work is falling away. The number of creative partners has multiplied," says Anderson, whose agency partner org chart these days looks more like an amoeba than a grid. "We prefer to work in an eco-system that is much more organic."

Oreo "Wonderfilled"

Since ending its U.S. relationship with Draft, Oreo’s new creative partner, The Martin Agency (which has led its recent "Wonderfilled" campaign), has been taking creative risks to push itself, and its client. For example, last year one of Martin’s creatives was tooling around and made a bizarrely catchy Eminem-sounding rap video about Oreo’s "Cookie Balls" (a recipe that turns the cookie into a low-grade chocolate truffle), setting it to playful animation. They shared it with Janda Lukin, Oreo’s North American business head, who decided to green light it. Since, it’s wracked up over one million hits on YouTube. Then earlier this year Mondelez was gearing up to relaunch its Oreo Mini business, and unprompted, Martin’s team came up with a Seussian idea for a "mini mini Mart" mini-film where everything sold inside it is the size of an Oreo mini. Before even pitching the unusually charming concept to Oreo, the team built the physical store in Martin’s agency workshop. "Because they believed so much in it and because we'd given them the latitude to go and explore and play, they built an entire plywood prototype," says Lukin. "With our agency partners, there will be times where maybe I'm even personally a little uncomfortable, but I trust them. That's a really different place than we've been in the past."

Mondelez marketers believe getting out of their comfort zone has paid off. The company says that globally, it's seeing measurable returns on its investment in digital marketing. "Our efforts in digital are driving 2x ROI on a global level," says Bough. In 2013, the year it launched its "Wonderfilled" campaign, Oreo's North American business grew in the double-digits (however, growth can be attributed to everything from marketing to product innovation to shelf displays). While Anderson says continuing to push aggressively on areas like mobile is important, she believes the most vital trait of CMOs in the future will be their threshold for flexibility and appetite for the unknown. "The most critical characteristic of a CMO going forward," says Anderson, "is agility." Aptly, in July, CMO West took on a smaller role at Mondelez—and in September Anderson was ordained the company's new CMO.

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