Case Study: Edgy Ad Campaign, With Hefty Digital, Traditional PR Support, Helps the Pistachio Come Out of Its Shell

Timeframe: March - Dec. 2009

In early 2009, life wasn't all it was cracked up to be for the pistachio. In March of that year, the FDA issued a precautionary, voluntary recall for the green nut for salmonella contamination, which caused a media firestorm and an ensuing panic of pistachio lovers nationwide.

Although the FDA found that one single grower that contributed less than 1% of the total harvest in 2008 was responsible for the recall, the damage had been done: category sales plummeted by 60%--although there were no reported illnesses.

After the FDA's edict, the pistachio was just a shell of its former self. So how could the damage be repaired? Enter Paramount Farms, producer of 60% of California's pistachio harvest. Like other pistachio brands, the Paramount Farms brand, Wonderful Pistachios, was getting hit hard. So Paramount Farms' holding company, Roll International, put its PR, marketing and advertising machine to work on a campaign that not only would alleviate the crisis, but would catapult the pistachio to top-selling status in the grocery aisles.

It would be an uphill battle. Paramount Farms moved quickly after the FDA's edict, homing in on action steps to control and contain recall information. Taking key learnings from a peanut recall only months before, Paramount Farms took a straightforward tack: "Be transparent in a timely fashion," says Dimitri Czupylo, director of corporate communications at Roll International. Yet despite the launching of an informational Web site, PistachioRecall.org, within 72 hours of the FDA warning, consumers began to avoid the nut in droves.

Research showed that in the months after the FDA warning, the industry had lost its "light users," estimated at 5 million households, and four months after the recall, 90% of consumers, when asked, were still unsure if the recall had ended.

"There was a lot of consumer confusion," says Czupylo. "Come June, people still weren't sure of whether it was really safe to eat pistachios," says Czupylo.

In response, Paramount Farms would go on the offensive and roll out the Get Crackin' campaign, which would humorously encourage Americans to eat pistachios with confidence.

Roll, says Marc Seguin, senior director of marketing for Paramount Farms, took the FDA warning personally. "We felt that we'd been falsely accused, and we were suffering for someone else's product," he says. Roll International's owner, Lynda Resnick, uses the term "opper-threat," which is all about making an opportunity out of a crisis. That's exactly the strategy Roll would implement, continues Seguin. "We decided not to play defense, and to start a conversation about the fun of pistachios," he says. The initiative's objectives were twofold:

* Increase industry sales

* Transform a commodity into a brand

Anchored by eight TV spots created by Fire Station Agency, Roll's in-house ad shop, the campaign would be complemented by a Web site makeover and aggressive media relations and social media efforts.

NUTTY COMEBACK

The Wonderful Pistachios brand, which debuted in 2007, traditionally relied on in-store displays and partner deals with retailers. "Nobody had ever marketed pistachios with a megaphone, so it was a bit of an unknown," says Seguin.

The aim of the campaign --developed jointly by Roll's advertising, PR and marketing departments (see sidebar for details)--was to show several pop culture personalities demonstrating how they crack open a pistachio in their own, tongue-in-cheek fashion. Featuring Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, Brady Bunch alum Christopher Knight, Jackass prankster Wee-Man, Levi Johnston, father of Sarah Palin's grandchild, and a real-life dominatrix, among others, eight mini-PR campaigns were crafted to appeal to various audience passion points.

"The goal was for the campaign to go viral," says Czupylo. This would require enhancing and extending the life of a traditional ad campaign through digital and social media efforts, and a comprehensive media relations push. "We were counting on this nutty cast of character to be the catalyst for the campaign," he says.

POP CULTURE PUSH

In early October of 2009, the commercials launched on programs such as Monday Night Football, Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with David Letterman and The Office.

Meeting the viral goal was no problem, thanks to the spot that featured Johnston (see photo on previous page). A controversial voiceover closed the ad: "Now, Levi Johnston does it with protection," not-so-slyly referring to the child he had with Sarah Palin's daughter, Bristol. The commercial set traditional and social media sites abuzz, and the spot garnered 700,00 YouTube views in the first few weeks of the campaign.

The controversy wasn't lost on the Roll team. "The idea was for the celebrities to be funny, and kind of quirky and edgy," says Seguin. "It's that kind of edge that turned a good campaign into a great campaign."

360 SUPPORT

The TV spots were bolstered by a number of key communications components, including:

*PR--Traditional and Social Media: In essence, there were nine media relations campaigns--one for the overall message and eight mini-campaigns focusing on the fan groups for each featured celebrity. From sports to entertainment, gay to TV press, every angle was pitched, says Joan Wickham, corporate communications associate at Roll and a key member of the media outreach team.

"The overall story, which launched as an exclusive in USA Today, was about the business aspect of pistachios, and the FDA warning provided context," says Wickham. While traditional broadcast and print outlets were covered, it was the digital platforms, particularly bloggers, that provided the punch. "It just exploded online," she says.

*New Web Site: GetCrackin.com featured behind-the-scenes videos of the commercials, a blog, a Pac-Man-inspired "CrackMan" game and an iPhone app. Content was shared through Facebook and Twitter feeds.

*Video Contest: Consumers uploaded videos to YouTube showing how they crack open a pistachio. The contest drew about 1,400 entrants.

*Retail Sales: Presence at retail included creative "bins" that increased the brand's visual footprint by 90% above the prior year.

BEATS PEANUTS

The Get Crackin' campaign's original objectives were easily met, with mind-boggling numbers. The results include:

* Sales Up: The campaign lifted the entire industry (see chart) . Looking at sales year over year, Paramount Farms (which includes Wonderful Pistachios) saw an 85% increase and Wonderful Pistachios saw a 233% increase during the campaign (October-December).

* Peanuts Displaced: According to industry data, Wonderful Pistachios had the two top-selling SKUs at grocery in the "snack nut" category, beating third-place finisher peanuts--quite an accomplishment considering pistachios have only a quarter of the household penetration of snack peanuts.

* Monster Media Relations: Traditional media hits included CNN Headline News, E! News, People, Parade, MSNBC, Fox Business, NPR and Access Hollywood, totalling 580 million media impressions, $4 million in ad value, 159 online stories, two AP articles, 67 local television segments, two additional USA Today stories and 119 airings of the commercial during news broadcasts.

* Social Media Scores: With more than 100 blog posts and 4,000 tweets, the online conversation was propelled by prominent blogs like The Huffington Post, Perez Hilton, Gawker, AdFreak and The Daily Beast.

* Web Traffic Jam: GetCrackin.com drove 60,000 visitors to view the commercials on YouTube--with over 600,000 views in the first week.

So what's not to like about Get Crackin'? According to Seguin, the big mistake was running out of product (Wonderful Pistachios) near the end of the campaign. And remember that video contest? Czupylo says that for the 2010 campaign, Roll has partnered with Poptent (www.poptent.net), a network of filmmakers and other creative types who want to show off their work--which should result in more quality video submissions.

And yes, there was a new crop of celebs in 2010, led by disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Levi came up large for pistachios in 2009, but Blago is no slouch when it comes to making nutty media waves.


last updated december 2013