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Why marketers love mashups, from mac ‘n’ cheese ice cream to baked bean smoothies

It’s part of a marketing trend that uses unexpected partnerships to gain your attention—and it’s working.

Why marketers love mashups, from mac ‘n’ cheese ice cream to baked bean smoothies
[Source Photo: Kraft]
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There are some product combinations that just go together naturally. Peanut butter and jelly. Ketchup and fries. Mustard and hot dogs. Milk and Oreos. Kraft Mac and Cheese and ice cream.

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Okay, not that last one. Macaroni and cheese-flavored ice cream makes about as much sense as Steak and onions ice cream. Or pizza-flavored ice cream. Two things people love, but not together. At least that’s what you might think.

This week Kraft launched a collaboration with Brooklyn-based Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, a cult brand known for making quality ice cream and vegan ice cream with just a few ingredients. Timed to drop on July 14—National Macaroni and Cheese Day—the limited edition collaboration is described in Kraft’s press release as a “cool, creamy scoop of ice cream that brings that comforting, nostalgic feeling from a warm bowl of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.”

Which of course sounds like the most counterintuitive brand move in the history of brand moves. But these mashups actually make a lot of sense, both from a culinary and a marketing perspective. Queso ice cream is incredibly popular in the Philippines, and cheese tea was described in 2018 as “the new bubble tea.” Mashups can be a way to introduce new flavor combinations to Western customers.

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They’re also a way to lure new consumers. “These are ‘drops’ in a world where you can only do so much with a chicken sandwich or mac & cheese,” says Forrester retail analyst Sucharita Kodali. “They are intended to be limited-edition releases that have PR value and sell out quickly.” In this way, they bear a striking resemblance to the sneaker industry, a  $79 billion business often characterized by limited edition shoe drops that drive fan enthusiasm and, consequently, oodles of sales.

Novelty brand product extensions aren’t a new trend, but they have been gaining popularity. In 2012, Taco Bell launched the co-branded Doritos Locos Taco; the teaming of two logically complementary brands became the most successful product launch in the chain’s history, selling 100 million Doritos Locos Taco in 10 weeks. Similarly, in 2019, Cheetos branched out to include both a KFC chicken sandwich and Regal Cinemas movie popcorn, resulting in sales growth for both Cheetos’ parent PepsiCo and KFC. KFC’s then-chief marketing officer Andrea Zahumensky said these kinds of partnerships are vital to create excitement among a younger audience and drive sales growth. They used that same logic when someone pitched KFC Crocs. Meanwhile, witness the Sriracha-fication of just about every product category known to humankind.

As the frequency of these mashups increases, so too will the shock factor. Last October, Heinz and UK-based Innocent Drinks collaborated on a baked beans-based breakfast smoothie. Beanz Machine!

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Fast-forward to last week, and you have Airheads candy jumping …um, headfirst into the Chicken Sandwich Wars with a fried chicken sandwich featuring a bun made of the chewy taffy candy.

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Kodali says the sheer amount of media coverage and social media engagement around these collaborations means the trend won’t end any time soon. “Of course there will be more like this — you’re asking questions about it — that itself is a testament to the success,” she says. “These are collaborations like in music—Eminem and Rihanna, Lady Gaga and whoever. People always love them. What’s not to like?”

Ask me that again when someone makes a chicken sandwich ice cream.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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