Reviewing Kraft Heinz's extensive brand portfolio, Corn Nuts probably doesn't jump to mind for consumers as quickly as, say, Kraft, Heinz or Oscar Mayer. The maker of the fried, crunchy kernels first introduced in 1936 is well aware of its smaller stature, however, and has tapped into that same underdog spirit to break out of a niche and win over the millennial buyers that many in the packaged foods category struggle to reach.
Leading the charge are Jennifer Hill and Alec Imaizumi, recent college graduates who are managers for Corn Nuts' social media and brand divisions, respectively, and who sounded somewhat taken aback by their degree of success in a recent phone interview. Over roughly the past eight months, the two have transformed perceptions of Corn Nuts through Twitter marketing that's entirely organic and done without the help of a third-party agency.
"As of right now, our strategy is me and Alec over lunch," 23-year-old Hill told Marketing Dive.
By focusing on amplifying the voices of Corn Nuts' most ardent and surprisingly young fans, Hill, who personally handles the Corn Nuts' Twitter feed from her phone, has grown the account's followers from 650 to 21,000 and has helped to increase repeat purchases from millennials by 12%, according to company figures shared with Marketing Dive.
"It's absolutely translated to sales for us," Imaizumi said of the Twitter strategy.
Corn Nuts also saw sales jump 12% in regular retail stores and 4% in convenience stores across Q4 2018 and Q1 2019, or roughly the period when Hill took over on Twitter. That broke a years-long run of flat or declining sales for the product, according to Imaizumi.
"It's been very scrappy — we haven't put any marketing spend [behind it]," Hill said. "It's exciting because we're seeing momentum, not only from a sales side, but even seeing the interaction on the social side and people wanting to advocate for the brand."
Claims of scrappy beginnings don't appear to be exaggerated. Tasked with taking over the Corn Nuts' account in September, Hill said she had to reach out to Twitter to retrieve the log-in details and verify the page as official. There were no concrete goals set for her, either — something that probably benefited Corn Nuts in the long run despite today's demands to make marketing efforts more informed by data analytics and algorithmic predictions.
"When you think about marketing in 2019 particularly, we're constantly told that data's king; follow the data, you can't go wrong," Hill said.
"The running narrative for years has been that the pricing and flavor profile drove [Corn Nuts] to index well on the West Coast and in the South," she said. "It actually skewed toward an older audience. All the data was there."
Even some cursory Google searches and internet sleuthing revealed that there were more vocal, younger Corn Nuts fans frequently sharing their thoughts but largely being ignored by the brand, according to Hill.
"Every time they tweeted or tagged us or messaged us, no one from our end was answering," Hill said. "That's where the most basic idea of getting online started."
In order to connect with these underserved customers, Hill began retweeting and responding to messages, even at odd hours of the night, sharing a variety of the types of internet in-jokes and memes that have become a de facto digital cultural currency today. Brands like Wendy's helped popularize the trend of relatable brands on Twitter, but as the space has grown more crowded, plenty of accounts have also fallen flat in their attempts to appear hip with audiences that have grown increasingly cynical toward advertising.
Hide your girlfriends pic.twitter.com/SaWvbTJBZi— CORN NUTS (@CornNuts) April 23, 2019
To avoid falling into that trap, Hill said she thinks of her 18-year-old brother as a broad test for what would resonate or miss the mark with Corn Nuts' target audience. She also tries to avoid overtly hawking Corn Nuts as a product, an approach that's reflected in the absence of any paid Twitter advertising.
"At this point, everybody wants to be a funny brand online," Hill said. "But the way that I think we've succeeded is that everything that we do is interaction-first, brand awareness hypothetically second and then way down the line do we even talk about product."
For other brands, this type of community engagement often evolves into outreach tactics like influencer marketing, since influencers are — or, at least for a time, were — believed to come across as more authentic with consumers. But Hill and Imaizumi said tapping into creators with big followings isn't really in the cards for now and that they'll continue to focus their efforts on Corn Nuts' smaller, but active, existing fan base.
"Influencer campaigns more and more have become the new buzzword for brands. It's not something that we've talked about," Hill said, adding that the team prefers devotees with 30 to 40 followers who are willing to shout-out the brand on their timelines.
"Probably about 75% of [the Twitter feed] is not even my content," she added. "It's people who've tweeted stuff at me and it's amazing and I want to highlight them and have them spirit what Corn Nuts means."
Extending the brand
Corn Nuts' surprise success likely comes as a welcome bright spot for Kraft Heinz, which shocked investors when it slashed the value of Kraft and Oscar Mayer by $15.4 billion and revealed an SEC investigation into its procurement practices in February. The company is also parting ways with U.S. CMO and global brand officer Eduardo Luz later this month, adding to a string of recent executive churn that's also included CEO Bernando Hees, who will step down at the end of June. Many of Kraft Heinz's brands — and many packaged foods marketers, generally — would benefit from a non-paid social strategy that gasses up sales and improves brand image with a desirable shopper segment like millennials.
But Hill cautioned that the on-the-fly approach to Corn Nuts' Twitter isn't necessarily something that will translate well to other businesses, in the same way that running a glossy Instagram account doesn't make sense for Corn Nuts. Hill claims that Corn Nuts only has a Facebook page "by technicality" and doesn't plan to extend its brand into other channels yet.
“It speaks to the way that our brands here at Kraft Heinz are also trying to innovate and do things that are a little bit out of the box," Hill said. "For us, that meant Twitter. For another brand, it might mean something else."
In terms of new horizons, Corn Nuts is looking to emerging markets, such as gaming, that are centered around what Hill called "holistic" versus purely product-led experiences. Other blue chip marketers like Procter & Gamble and Unilever have hopped on the esports bandwagon, although Corn Nuts is only pursuing similar opportunities via an organic Twitter strategy. The reasoning, according to Hill and Imaizumi, is tied to an old idiom: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
"We're pretty proud of the fact that it's grown the way it's grown without any spend," Hill said. "Moving forward, we don't want to change that."