Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
As the pandemic ebbs but leaves in its wake more economic uncertainty and global disruption, brands have doubled down on campaigns that revolve around self-care, comfort and positivity.
Like many packaged foods marketers, Kraft Heinz has ridden the waves of the last few years and worked to meet evolving consumer expectations around finding moments of joy amid persistent challenges. Its Mac & Cheese product has been at the forefront of these changes as the focus of a "Help Yourself" campaign that launched in 2021 and a streamlined rebrand last year.
Kraft Heinz last month unveiled the latest installment of "Help Yourself" with a series of short-form spots that use its smile-shaped, cheese-covered noodle to transform quotidian problems into more positive concepts. In the 6- and 15-second ads, "struggles" turn into "snuggles," dress pants become sweatpants and "rush hour" morphs into "happy hour," to name a few.
"In the new spots, we asked ourselves, 'What does it really mean to help yourself?' And that's where we got this universal truth: No matter who you are, how old you are, or whatever you have going on in your life, Kraft Mac & Cheese invites you to put yourself first by choosing what makes you feel good inside and out," said Victoria Lee, brand manager for Kraft Mac & Cheese.
A light bulb moment
The new creative is the latest step in a two-year-plus journey to modernize Kraft Mac & Cheese and position the brand around the positive power of comfort food. Grounded in interviews conducted by WatersonGarner that revealed the brand to be a source of comfort for experts and consumers, the "Help Yourself" campaign rolled out in November 2021 and continued through a rebrand last summer that focused on shifting the perception that leaning into comfort is lazy or bad for you.
As Kraft Heinz hoped to expand "Help Yourself" in the second year of the campaign, agency Johannes Leonardo looked into getting specific with the double entendre of a title. The agency saw a bowl of Mac & Cheese as a "vehicle of transformation" that — no matter what consumers are facing — results in a feeling of comfort. The brand's iconic offering let the agency connect with consumers on a nostalgic level and served as a centerpiece of the creative.
"We started to have fun with going into the noodle and [playing] that sound you get when you're slurping up the last bit of cheese [and] it inspired this action that became our whole storytelling mechanism," said Grace Martin, creative director at Johannes Leonardo. "Once we stumbled on that, it was a light bulb moment… there's so many different stories you can tell with this."
A creative puzzle
In the case of the campaign's 6- and 15-second spots, the stories are simple: expressive word art is transformed, turning a spiky "feels" into a plush "feels," or rewriting "fussin'" as "bussin.'" Some don't even need words: In one, an office chair enters the Mac & Cheese noodle and becomes a recliner. Most of the ads get extra mileage out of sonic branding and musical cues as well.
"It's like a creative puzzle," Martin said. "Let's think of a moment where you were seeking out comfort and then what's the most interesting way to bring that story to life? What visual format would you use even to bring that to life?”
The ads have a handmade animation style reminiscent of MTV and Nickelodeon station identification spots from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The brand and agency worked with London shop Nexus and director Conor Finnegan, who brought a charm, wit and comedic sense to the effort, Martin explained. Almost every concept has a unique animator, which helps differentiate the spots and hopefully appeal to a wider audience.
"The more real and relatable these stories [are], the more they can make you laugh, make you notice little things, the more fun the work is, the more it resonates with you," Martin said.
For Kraft Heinz, reminding large and diverse audiences of their relationship with Mac & Cheese is key to the company's success. One of the marketer's billion-dollar brands, Mac & Cheese grew 8% year-over-year in 2022 and sells over 1 million boxes every day.
"The simplicity of this storytelling is really beautiful because we are able to create so many different spots [and] we're able to tell so many different stories," Lee said. "Whether you're a single person in your 20s or a family of four, there is a story there that you see. That is the beauty of the work: the simplicity of using the icon to tell the story."