Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
The days when college football bowl games had simple names like the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl are long gone; for years, brands have stepped up to sponsor the match-ups that fill the TV schedule during the holidays. Once the purview of major marketers in banking, telecom and insurance, bowl games have increasingly looked outside the box for sponsorships to fund and draw attention to the growing season.
More so than controversy or the eventual winner of the Jan. 8 championship game, it is one of those new sponsors that will likely be the most memorable part of this bowl season thanks to an eye-catching game-day stunt by Pop-Tarts.
When the Kellanova brand announced plans for an edible mascot back in November, few could have guessed what the activation would entail or how it would captivate an audience of consumers who otherwise wouldn't have been watching the contest between Kansas State and NC State on Dec. 28.
In a now-viral moment, the Pop-Tarts mascot emerged from a giant toaster that had been wheeled onto the field. Holding a sign that said "Dreams really do come true" and dancing to Donna Summer's disco classic "Hot Stuff," the mascot then descended into the toaster and was "transformed" into a giant toaster pastry that was devoured by the Kansas State team.
The Pop-Tart holding up a sign that says "Dreams really do come true" as it is lowered into a toaster to be cooked alive is the darkest thing I've ever seen https://t.co/ujJyD8i1Ml— Derek Faraci (@WH_Woolhat) December 29, 2023
"For sixty years, Pop-Tarts has sacrificed everything for flavor and our mascot at the first-ever Pop-Tarts Bowl wasn’t going to be any different," said Heidi Ray, senior director of brand marketing for Pop-Tarts, in emailed comments. "Knowing mascots are the ultimate symbol of team spirit, we wanted to go above and beyond to wow the crowd both at home and in the stadium, thus the first-ever edible mascot was born…and then eaten."
For Pop-Tarts, the activation — in all its darkly weird or weirdly dark glory — grew out of the brand's "Agents of Crazy Good" platform. Launched over the summer, the brand's new creative direction calls back to its "Crazy Good" ads from the 2000s, but with a twist: while previous ads featured anthropomorphized Pop-Tarts fleeing from hungry people, the new campaign features characters who crave being eaten.
"The Pop-Tarts Bowl mascot was an IRL manifestation of this campaign, running around the stadium, interacting with fans and referees and gleefully transforming into a game-winning snack for the victors, just like in our most recent advertisements," Ray explained.
"We wanted to ensure there was no confusion around how Frosted Strawberry felt about being dropped into the toaster and eaten by the winning team. Our mascot, like our iconic toaster pastries, was born to be enjoyed by fans. As the sign Frosted Strawberry held while being lowered into a giant toaster said, this ultimate sacrifice is what its dreams were made of."
Winning on the field of social media
Embracing an off-beat sense of humor at its inaugural bowl game has been a boon for Pop-Tarts on social media. Over the last six months, around 30% of all Pop-Tart mentions on social media originated from the game, per Talkwalker data shared with Marketing Dive. On game-day, the mascot "dominated conversations" around the bowl game.
"Sentiment is a tricky one as you get the emotions of the game impacting the results — plus there were some dark jokes related to the mascot toasting,” according to a Talkwalker spokesperson. “But overall, the game was about +20% net sentiment, and mentions around the mascot were +30.2% net sentiment."
Pop-Tarts is taking the social engagement in stride, monitoring social conversation, amplifying its owned content across platforms and interacting with user-generated content on Instagram, X and TikTok.
"We are lucky to have such engaged fans who embraced our edible mascot and injected their own quirky, creative humor into their social commentary and content. We can’t stop watching all the memes, chatter, videos and stories taking over our feeds and look forward to seeing what else our ingenious fans come up with," Pop-Tarts’ Ray said.
The level of social engagement, especially when compared to other bowl sponsorships, could be a lesson for other marketers looking to the college football space to engage with consumers.
Among all bowl games sponsors, Pop-Tarts had four times the amount of engagement whenever their brand was mentioned, versus every other bowl game, and has been the most engaged bowl game wherever brands were included, per data from sports and entertainment intelligence platform SponsorUnited.
"Now there's this roadmap of a brand that was able to go viral by leveraging this bowl game that nobody maybe cared that much about, except for the two schools, and all of a sudden, there's this huge opportunity — this is a potential low-cost entry way for [brands] to really own something and create something truly viral in nature," said Bob Lynch, founder and CEO of SponsorUnited.
"Pop-Tarts, as a brand, historically has more people that have had a Pop-Tart than people that know anything about NC State or Kansas State," Lynch noted. "They bring a new audience and brand value to the dynamic."