Bonin Bough is late. The global head of media for Mondelēz International, the $35 billion snack-food conglomerate, is scheduled to headline an Advertising Club breakfast in New York City, but he's nowhere to be found.
Ever since Mondelēz decided that its flagship $2.4 billion Oreo cookie needed to have a personality and a voice in the culture, Bough has become impossible to pin down. Starting in June 2012, a nine-month blast of social media hits—including, most famously, its "You can still dunk in the dark" tweet just four minutes into last year's Super Bowl blackout—heralded Oreo's arrival as a nimble online marketer. As a result, Bough has become the rock star of real-time marketing, the ad industry equivalent of a one-name force like Beyoncé. (Everyone just calls him "Bonin.") He doesn't work from Mondelēz's suburban offices outside New York or Chicago but seems to ride a perpetual magic-carpet hologram between Silicon Valley, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Melbourne, Australia. No one expects Bough to be on time. One Mondelēz partner actually bought a ticket to this affair—it seemed like the best way to track Bough down. "He's part persona and part substance," says the partner. "But Bonin's the person you go to when you have a creative idea that no one will green-light. He gets shit done."
Bough does show up, only 20 minutes behind schedule, and he works his well-oiled routine on the crowd. Oreo needs to "move at the speed of culture," he says, like a preacher trying to convert those who haven't yet been reborn in the real-time religion. His speech traverses topics as far-flung as bionic limbs, Jay Z, and hacking. He's got a book coming out next spring in which he explores digital's influence on everything from memory to sex.
For years now, Bough has been the geekiest person in the room in industries that aren't particularly tech savvy. He spent nearly a decade building digital practices at PR firms and then became the digital chief at PepsiCo. He got the Mondelēz job in 2012 (when it was still part of Kraft Foods), when CMO Mary Beth West realized that impulse-buy brands like Oreo are now competing for consumers' attention against apps and not just other salt-sugar-fat confections. If a person waiting in line at a convenience store is going to spend an extra dollar in the spur of the moment, she's now more likely to buy a power-up in the mobile game she's staring at than pick up a sleeve of cookies from the rack near the register. Most global media heads at big consumer brands have a traditional TV advertising background. But Mondelēz wanted someone to navigate the increasingly complex maze of digital channels. "I can get anyone to negotiate a contract," West tells me. "I need somebody who believes that [digital] is the future."
Mondelēz's bet is that if brands like Oreo can lead the culture now, the company will be better prepared for a technological upheaval it sees as inevitable, a disruption that will affect what kinds of ads go where on some sort of real-time basis. It's complicated stuff. "On one hand, Dunk in the Dark was a huge success, but in reality, it was a huge failure," says Bough. "Imagine if at that moment we had been able to programmatically change every piece of media that we were buying to turn on the Oreo ad," he explains, using a recent buzzword—programmatic—to describe the trend of automated real-time ad buying. Oreo's Super Bowl tweet-heard-round-the-world was so successful that no one paid much attention to Oreo's standard-issue Super Bowl ad that was produced months in advance and purchased for something like $4 million. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Or simply proof of how unpredictable the future of advertising is? "People look at [programmatic] as cost savings right now. It's way more strategic," he says. "Imagine a marketer who can create video in real time and buy [ad space] in real time. It was at that moment we realized that there was a bigger game that we weren't prepared to play."
Every brand (and its respective ad agency) is wrestling with how to stay relevant amid fractured audiences, but Bough and Mondelēz have set the pace for traditional consumer brands. Mondelēz has committed to spending 50% of its U.S. advertising budget on digital and 10% of its estimated $200 million global spend on mobile by 2016. It wants to seize the future.
This embrace of culture and speed is a shock to the system for a brand (and a company) that has run clones of the same ad for decades. "Every commercial had to have two generations of people coming together over a cookie and a glass of milk, and there had to be a ritual of the twist, lick, and dunk," says Darren Moran, a former chief creative officer at Oreo's onetime U.S. ad agency Draftfcb. Dana Anderson, an industry feather-ruffler in her own right who happens to be Bough's boss at Mondelēz, says that culture is the ticket to getting Oreo out of a myopic existence. "For 30 years it's been, 'Here's the product, the objective benefits, the subjective benefits—how am I going to get up the ladder?' " she says. "As opposed to, 'I'm going to come from the side and—boom!' "
Participating in the culture is like trying to hold on to the side of an ever-accelerating runaway train while making sure that everyone you pass remembers your name. It's not easy. You need to get lucky, you need the internal discipline to respond to that luck with alacrity—and you need a really strong voice.
Oreo's first big hit came about, in no small part, because of a fluke of the calendar. In the summer of 2012, for the brand's 100th anniversary, Oreo launched a 100-day social media campaign called the "Daily Twist," in which Oreo transformed timely cultural crumbs like "Talk Like a Pirate Day" and ZZ Top's new album into whimsical Oreo-themed sculptures primed for sharing on Facebook. The campaign kicked off with a rainbow crème–filled Oreo in honor of Gay Pride. The world interpreted it as a bold social statement from an iconic brand, but that wasn't Oreo's intent. The company had set a launch date, "and if you looked at the news of that week, that's when Gay Pride was," says Jill Applebaum, the campaign's creative lead at Draftfcb. It was moving quickly—too fast for the higher-ups at the company to sign off. America's favorite cookie didn't want to stir controversy by chiming in on political issues, and if you look at the next 99 days, it never did again. But had the cookie not, as Stephen Colbert put it, "come out of the pantry" with such panache, "I don't know how much attention this project would have received," Applebaum admits.
With "Daily Twist" a new marketing milestone, Oreo began to adapt to the style and speed it would need to succeed. When Bough imagined Oreo having its own mobile game, he didn't want the usual schlock created by an ad agency and played by no one. "He said, 'I want to win,' " recalls Guy Horrocks, CEO of Carnival, a mobile marketing firm. Winning meant an active user base and a revenue model. Carnival saw a parallel between Oreo's eating ritual (twist, lick, dunk) and an incredibly successful game, Slam Dunk King, so Horrocks hired Slam Dunk's developer, PikPok, to build it. PikPok then marketed it to its 40 million users. The three parties paid for the production of the app upfront and did a revenue share for the in-game ads and purchases.
Released in November 2012, Twist, Lick, Dunk was a hit and, in a rarity for a branded app, made money. It became the No. 1 game in 15 countries, and its popularity attracted other consumer goods giants like P&G to advertise. "It's pretty meta," says Bough. "An ad selling ads."
By the time the Super Bowl came around in February 2013, the blackout may have been unexpected, but Oreo's response wasn't. People still ask Bough about it, saying, " 'Oh my god, how were you guys ready to respond in four minutes?' " he says. "I'm like, 'Didn't you see what we did for the last 100 days? That was building the muscle memory as an organization to be able to operate that way.' "
In the year and a half since Dunk in the Dark, Facebook, apps, and Twitter have become mainstream. Services such as Snapchat, Yo, and Instagram's Hyperlapse have that new marketing platform smell, and who knows what trends like wearables and the Internet of Things might bring? Bough is exploring them all. He tells me of a recent trip to Africa where its new solar-panel network caught his attention. "Because so much of the population is unbanked, you pay using mobile credits," he explains. "We want to be able to be a part of a geo-location infrastructure, if that's going to be the new lighting grid." Huh? Bough, a relentless digital optimist, talks this way a lot.
Oreo is perpetually trying to experiment its way into the zeitgeist. After an employee at 360i, Oreo's digital agency, noticed that someone had posted a Facebook photo teaching people how to dunk an Oreo without wetting their fingers, "We thought, 'How can we hack Oreo in different ways?' " says Janda Lukin, the head of Oreo's North American business. 360i shot Vine videos of what happens when you put the cookie in a pepper grinder or freeze it in milk cubes for iced coffee. It courted cool L.A. chefs Roy Choi, Nguyen Tran, and Michael Voltaggio to concoct such dishes as Golden Oreo–coated fried chicken and chips made from crushed Oreos and served with a strawberry salsa for a Snack Hacks series on YouTube. The videos got Oreo talked about on food blogs and attracted some 750,000 views each.
However, Snack Hacks is still an appetizer-sized success compared to the volume and velocity of what's ahead. "The biggest challenge I have," Bough says, "is I can't create content fast enough."
One way Bough hopes to augment his content-creation production line is an unlikely partnership with the startup NowThis News, a CNN for social-media– weaned millennials and generation Zers with the attention span of a flea (and founded by the same guy who bankrolled Huffington Post and BuzzFeed). "The majority of our videos are 30 to 45 seconds," says Steven Belser, the startup's head of video production. Belser and his team can tell the Venezuelan drought story in a six-second Vine (using Claymation, no less). They are equally committed to "longer-form content, so, things that are one minute, two minutes."
The Mondelēz joint venture, known as Blink Studios, is the company's real-time video unit, tasked with deciding how Oreo responds to the buzz du jour. Early one morning this May, its team used analytics to see if Oreo fans were chatting about the day's big news, Google's self-driving car. They were! The Blink team quickly threw together a 15-second video. "Some things have gotten way better. Some things haven't really needed to," was the punch line. The execution was mildly clever. The video, garnering less than 700 retweets and Facebook likes, was a flop.
Discussing Oreo's recent body of work, Shankar Gupta, VP of strategy at 360i, concedes that "these are not all Super Bowls."
These experiments are fun, but do they sell more cookies?
Since Oreo embraced culture, the brand's annual sales growth is up from the low double digits to more than 20%. But analysts attribute that to its expansion into emerging markets in Asia. It's very hard to prove that new-media campaigns increase sales. During the Grammys this year, viewers who tweeted #SendMeOreo received a box of limited-edition cookies in new flavors that landed in stores a week later. "In terms of revenue, it was the biggest limited-edition launch that we ever had," says Lukin, Oreo's North American chief. But no one at the company can tell me how—or if—"Daily Twist," the Super Bowl tweet, and the Twist, Lick, Dunk app affected cookie sales. Asked specifically about the Super Bowl, Lukin admits, "There isn't a great way for us to directly link it."
Bough's buzziest stunt this year was a futuristic Oreo dispenser called Trending Vending. The machine, which debuted at South by Southwest Interactive last March, uses an algorithm to transform trending Twitter topics into customized cookies, a concept that manages to mashup at least three different tech trends—mass customization, 3-D printing, and hashtags. "Imagine a time when you're watching the Super Bowl and the lights go out, you see us tweeting our conversation, and you can actually go to the store the next day and buy a cookie that tastes like that conversation," Bough says, as if people are craving a computer's interpretation of the flavor of a tweet.
South by Southwest attendees ate it up. Apparently, the technorati are, in fact, craving cookies created by a "proprietary algorithm" that converts the likes of #EllenSelfie or #GrumpyCat into one of 16,000 wafer-cream combos. "The most cynical crowd in the world was willing to stand in line for two hours to have a customized cookie experience," says Bough, who has been a regular at the Austin confab since its early days. "There is some power in this." As word of Trending Vending spread—it received 45 million media impressions after its five days in Austin—Oreo's biggest retail partners contacted the company. "Walmart, Target, Kroger were calling us, saying, 'We saw the vending machine on CNN. Can we get it to come to our parking lot?' " Bough says. Sadly, no. Trending Vending is too expensive and cumbersome to dot the nation's grocery store parking lots. Nor did that good buzz seem to produce a sales spike.
A showy stunt like Trending Vending does, however, produce indirect benefits for Mondelēz. One, it inspires its other brand marketers to take similar risks. "If they were nervous about doing something different," Bough says, "Oreo has given them permission." (So when Honey Maid, the milquetoast graham cracker, runs a gay-friendly campaign that goes viral, it's because Oreo blazed the trail.) The attention can also create a halo effect that helps Mondelēz brands secure better shelf space in supermarkets or bigger displays in high–foot-traffic areas that could translate into more sales.
Still, trying to prove that Bough's work––his ostentatious stunts (as a traditionalist might say), his creative brand focus (as a whole class of nouveau marketers would insist)––pays off in higher sales is a murky exercise. For instance, Bough says in 2012, the year of Daily Twist, Oreo's US sales grew 7 percent. Yet even he admits, "how much of that growth is exactly and directly attributable to the Daily Twist program alone is hard to isolate but it did represent the majority of our digital efforts that year." Quantifying impact is yet just another challenge for a big consumer products company, one that still has very conventional demands. In early August, Mondelēz reported that quarterly revenue had declined 2%. Profits inched up, but only due to cost-cutting measures. CEO Irene Rosenfeld cut sales projections for the year, citing rising cocoa and dairy costs. (There's no tweet powerful enough to move the commodities markets.) Mondelēz also elevated a new chief growth officer, the better to chase its international expansion, while CMO Mary Beth West took on a much smaller role at the company.
And when Mondelēz really pushed to boost Oreo sales this year, it turned to a marketing tactic that was innovative in the early days of the century––the 20th century, that is. Manufacturers have loved movie tie-ins since Sunshine soap appeared in early lumières, according to Leo Kivijarv at PQ Media. So Mondelēz shelled out big bucks for a global movie-marketing tie-in with Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction. Oreo got a cameo and promoted Transformers on its packaging. Bay directed a commercial spot. Bough tried to tag along with "this completely immersive in-movie kind of thing," he says, but it proved too "unwieldy," he adds.
Transformers was a megahit in China. Like Bough's count of tweets, media impressions, and awards, Transformers has its own set of verifiable, quantifiable measures. The movie grosed $300 million in China. It has earned over a billion dollars across the globe, entertaining tens of millions of people. It debuted at No. 1 in the ranks of domestic and global box offices. It may eventually prove to be one of the ten most internationally popular movies ever.
And what did this do for cookie sales? Mondelēz does not yet know. Bonin Bough's tactics may well be revolutionary, and they certainly give Oreo the sheen of a vital brand. But in other ways his efforts really show that there is nothing new under the marketing sun. Real-time marketing is another gun in the corporate arsenal, and like all the others, it's damn hard to tell if it ever hits the mark.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo: Henry Hargreaves and Nicholas Calcott, Prop styling: Nicole Heffron; 02 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 03 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 04 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 08 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 09 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 11 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 15 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 16 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 17 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 19 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International; 21 / Courtesy of Mondelēz International;