Hostess As A Heritage Brand And The Power Of Consumer Nostalgia

Rest assured, Twinkie lovers: Hostess is not dead.

Just as its hallmark product, the beloved Twinkie, is indestructible—spoil-proof, burn-resistant, gravity-defying—so, too, is its parent brand.

True, the company is bankrupt, thanks to poor management and shifting cultural mores that have rendered its products dated and irrelevant. In today’s society, junk food is a common enemy. Veggie chips pass muster. HoHos don't.

But the brand itself refuses to sink, buoyed by consumer perceptions. In our brand asset valuator database, which examines consumers’ perceptions of and attitudes toward more than 50,000 brands, "esteem" is an indicator of consumer regard and respect for a brand. Despite a cultural shift away from its products, when it comes to esteem, Hostess ranks among the top 15% of all brands. That puts Hostess in a category with Kodak and Readers Digest, which continue to garner esteem despite plummeting relevance.

What gives? Hostess, Kodak, and Readers Digest are all heritage brands, evoking nostalgia. And nostalgia is a powerful driver of esteem.

But why? One explanation is perceptual scale. Consumers place more affection and trust in brands that they perceive as smaller in scale. Nostalgia brands, in turn, seem smaller to us because they conjure up memories of a time when the world seemed more manageable. A time when we didn’t scrutinize ingredients or fret about their effects on our health; a time when our photos weren’t instant and our magazine pages weren’t pixelated. Trust in brands has plummeted 50 percent since 2001. Brands became too big, too opportunistic, too opaque. In turn, consumers grew to prefer brands that feel small, intimate, and personal. And nothing is more personal than our past.

Ultimately, our affection for Twinkies, HoHos, and Ding Dongs is firmly rooted in our collective fondness for an earlier era (if not our actual diets).

That’s powerful equity, but it can’t stand alone. Esteem without differentiation is like a Twinkie without sponge cake: All fluff, no structure. Differentiation requires infusing a brand with modernity, technological innovation and whimsy. Kodak and Readers Digest missed that memo and suffered for it. Hostess may endure a similar fate, living on as only an esteemed memory, a ghost brand of our past. Or not. A savvy buyer may lead Hostess into its next incarnation, maneuvering the twin pillars of esteem and differentiation. Done right, differentiation with a splash of nostalgia can be a potent cocktail for business.

Consider, for instance, Planters. Two years ago, the snack company revamped its look, giving the legendary Mr. Peanut a contemporary makeover (including the voice of Robert Downey Jr.) and drawing an important distinction between old-fashioned and old-school. Vintage, but not mothballed. It also unleashed a host of new products with fresh appeal to consumers, including a Men’s Health nut mix billed as "The manliest mix we’ve ever assembled," and came up with innovative uses for peanut butter, driving market share.

Or take the case of Burberry, the British fashion retailer best known for its trench coat and iconic plaid lining. The esteemed brand was accumulating dust in the brand closet until Christopher Bailey arrived as creative director. New management revamped the product lineup with lively colors; infused the retail experience with iPads and other technological cache; and built a provocative, engaging digital media presence, including ArtoftheTrench.com, a digital platform that allows users to upload photos of themselves in Burberry trench coats. Today, the brand is seen as fashion-forward and an embodiment of British cool.

So while the consumer republic heralds and rewards companies perceived as innovative and progressive, we nonetheless reserve a deep affection for the worthy brands of our past. Like the Twinkie, our esteem for Hostess brands won’t easily disintegrate. For the lucky bidder, that’s a powerful equity to leverage and innovate on.

—Will Johnson is SVP, Director of Global Brand Strategy at BAV Consulting, a Young & Rubicam Group Company. Julia Feldmeier is a senior strategist at BAV Consulting, a Young & Rubicam Group Company

[Image: Flickr user Elana Amsterdam]

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2 Comments

  • Devil Dog

    Data doesn't support your thesis that consumers are shifting to healthier foods.  You only need to look at skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates to see such a shift has not only not occurred, but probably consumers are eating more junk food than ever. 

    Hostess painted itself into a corner by entering into collective bargaining ingredients where they paid their employees too much money and had work rules that increased their labor costs.  They could not compete with their competitors on price because their competitors have a higher productivity rate per employee and lower labor costs.  Ultimately employees chose to strike and close Hostess which means the taxpayer will pick up the $2 BILLION dollar tab for their pensions - pensions that would have likely been severely cut had Hostess stayed in business.  So they chose to save their pension rather than their job.  This was probably smart as they can get another job - but their pension would have been gone if Hostess kept not contributing to their pension funds.