NEW YORK — To some observers, Hot Pockets and video games go hand-in-hand. A 2006 episode of "South Park" depicts the bratty character Cartman demanding the microwavable turnovers from his mom so as not to interrupt a marathon session playing "World of Warcraft" with his friends.
In reality, the Nestlé-owned product had lost some of its sway with younger cohorts in recent years, particularly up-and-coming Gen Z males who might not even have been born when the now-legendary "South Park" installment first aired. As gaming has evolved from a niche hobby to one of the most dominant drivers of pop culture, that resonance gap felt more egregious, Nestlé executives said during an Advertising Week session last week. In response, Hot Pockets shifted gears to focus more on the types of creators who hold otherwise ad-averse gaming fans at rapt attention.
"We knew how mom looked at the product — we had decades worth of information to do that — but again, we lost favor with the growing younger generation," said Bryan Waddell, head of influencer, gaming and esports at Nestlé, during the panel with agency partner Reach Agency. "Kind of the 'a-ha' for a lot of people was, we didn't have that brand staying power with millennials like we thought."
How does a brand engage a group that's essential to its business, but that it hasn't directly marketed to before? Hot Pockets and Reach Agency together devised a solution that involved tying a national couponing program to Twitch "Bits," virtual tips that viewers can gift their favorite creators on the Amazon-owned streaming platform to support their content and potentially receive a custom shout-out. Bits draw in big paydays for creators, while Twitch's position as the de-facto platform to watch people play games was shored up by the pandemic, creating an opportune moment for Hot Pockets to experiment with something new.
"We wanted to go big," Waddell said. "We wanted to know — or we wanted to prove — that gamers everywhere, Gen Z males everywhere, are receptive to these types of activations."
Pieces in place
The campaign, launched late last year, asked consumers to scan a special QR code or visit a dedicated microsite to add a Pockets for Bits card to their mobile wallet. When purchasing Hot Pockets and using a link in the mobile wallet card to scan their receipt, participants would then receive a unique code linked to their Twitch account carrying varying levels of Bits to dole out. Conceptually, the brand wanted to tap into the idea of "frictionless commerce," per Waddell, where consumers can immediately get rewarded after scanning their receipts.
Paid media on Twitch and Snapchat, along with partnerships with influencers including Shroud, supported awareness for the effort that saw thousands of redemptions within 48 hours of launch. Hot Pockets ended up reducing in half the program's duration, originally slated to run for six weeks, due to heavy demand, while driving a conversion rate of 36% — six times higher than past couponing initiatives. The surprise success spurred Hot Pockets to broadly rethink how it approaches campaigns in the gaming space, including a partnership with Microsoft's "Halo: Infinite" title set to hit shelves in December.
"It changes the foundation for how we look at creator-led activations, not only the other part of this year, but into next year," Waddell said. "If Hot Pockets for Bits hadn't happened, these new digital facing programs like this would not be enabled."
Waddell said that Hot Pockets' execution is indicative of a "consumer-centric" approach that tries to stay grounded in what consumers actually want to see, even if that means not every aspect of the campaign is heavily branded. Streams sponsored by Hot Pockets, for instance, racked up over 1 million cumulative hours of watch time, but only occasionally featured messages explicitly about the product.
"I was really focusing on moving our actions towards the eater," Waddell said. "With that, you have to be in the spaces that they go to, that they play with, that they engage within."
At the same time, Hot Pockets had an outlet to attach itself to moments of emotional connection with viewers. Shroud, the top influencer involved with the Bits campaign, wields more than 9 million Twitch followers, and would plug Hot Pockets in a fashion that didn't come across as an overt ad read.
"We saw the direct correlation to click-through rate based on when he would open his mouth and say something," Waddell said. "It wasn't just like, 'Buy Hot Pockets.' He took you into his pitch and he broke away in the areas in which he was most intimate."
While the Bits promotion paid out in the long run, the lead-up to the program was longer than Waddell wanted. Part of the problem stemmed from convincing internal stakeholders to change their thinking regarding performance. When narrowing in on specific fandoms like gaming, some platforms ultimately matter more than others, which carries an impact on overall reach. Examining other factors, like sentiment in streaming chats, can also be of larger importance.
"They nurture the channels in which they stream, not necessarily their other channels," Waddell said of gaming creators.
"You might see content numbers that maybe don't feel good when you read the report and kind of look at it on Instagram, Twitter, those types of things," he added. "It's not just about impressions and net reach. It's more so about engagement rate, conversions, being able to look at the sentiment in the chat in real-time."
And even as Hot Pockets is better keying into the next wave of buyers, its marketing strategy isn't abandoning moms. The "nag factor," where kids push their parents to buy products they believe to be cool, remains an important consideration.
"We pivoted a little bit [but] you cannot forget kind of where the lion's share is," Waddell said during a Q&A portion of the discussion when asked whether Hot Pockets was ditching moms.
"It's not like we're going to completely change the course of the ship, but more so think about it from the full family perspective and how we do things together," he added.