Matt Marzzacco got an email from his career counselor at Pennsylvania State University last year telling him there was a marketing position at Planters that he should apply for. Marzzacco read the listing, shook his head and turned to his friends.
"How crazy would it be," he asked them, "if I drove a peanut for a year?"
For the past 11 months, Marzzacco has been doing exactly that. Specifically, he's driving something called the Nutmobile, one of three novelty vehicles that Planters has put on the road for a national tour. The Nutmobile is, literally, an enormous motorized legume: 26 feet long, 12.5 feet tall with a yellow-orange shell of ribbed fiberglass mounted on the chassis of a 1-ton box truck. The cost? Planters prefers not to say.
There is room enough inside the Nutmobile to comfortably seat eight, including the staff of three trained "Peanutters" it takes to crew the colossus. Currently at the wheel is University of Wisconsin grad Kayla Schmidt, who responded to the same ad Marzzacco did and, like him, has been taking turns driving the rig around the country since last June. The Nutmobile looks like a serious pain to maneuver, but Schmidt is a company woman to the core. "It drives smooth as peanut butter," she attests.
The Nutmobile is in New York this week—where it picked up a certain reporter from Adweek—to celebrate the 100th birthday of Mr. Peanut, the top hatted, tuxedo-wearing "spokesnut" who's been the face of Planters since 1916. Mr. Peanut, who's in both the Advertising Walk of Fame and the Smithsonian, obviously cannot be relegated to a yellow cab or Uber car. And so, Planters furnished him with a suitable ride.
Planters has actually operated a peanut-shaped vehicle of one kind or another since 1935, but the Nutmobile is the culmination of the vehicular marketing arts. It features a Bose stereo system, two TVs, a GPS system that keeps the Nutmobile safely away from low overpasses, lots of legroom and many, many jars of salted peanuts.
Going nuts in Times Square
You only need to ride the Nutmobile a block in midtown Manhattan to understand its purpose. Tourists stop dead in their tracks, whip out smartphones and take photos.
"Nice truck!" calls a construction worker from the sidewalk.
"That's a bad-ass nut!" offers a bike messenger, weaving past.
"People yell at us at red lights," Marzzacco says.
"People will show us their Mr. Peanut tattoos," Schmidt adds.
The Peanutters have seen it all.
Drivers frequently sound their horns at the Nutmobile. Some people just yell "Nut!" for lack of anything better to yell. Still others knock on the side of the Nutmobile, possibly hoping for a handout—which they will get: The Peanutters hand out some 300,000 1-ounce peanut packs in a given tour.
The Nutmobile follows a schedule. It shows up at fairs, festivals and parades—anywhere it'll get attention for the brand. The real marketing mileage Planters gets from the vehicle, however, is having consumers share photos of the rig and selfies ("SHELL-fies" in this case) with the mascot. (Mr. Peanut was doing a TV appearance at the time of this writing and hence was not aboard.) Planters encourages the public to tag their Nutmobile pics with #MrPeanut100. "That hashtag has been blowing up since we've been in the city," Marzzacco says.
How to be a Peanutter
Themed vehicles are nothing new in the annals of marketing. Zippo, Spam, Peeps and Red Bull all have vehicles shaped like their products. Planters' sister brand at Kraft Foods is Oscar Mayer, operator of the famous Weinermobile, a road warrior since 1936. The Nutmobile isn't as famous, but it appears to justify the trouble Planters takes to keep its fleet of three on the road. The huge peanut has driven in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (TV audience: 50 million), and Planters currently has a contest going that'll send the Nutmobile to a lucky fan's house for his or her birthday.
"A lot of marketing is social media done by big brands," says Nutmobile coordinator Brian Mallioux, riding in the front passenger seat. "But we generate face-to-face interaction. We bring the experience to everybody."
Not that it's easy. There aren't many places to park a 26-foot-long peanut in New York, which is why the Peanutters stayed at a New Jersey Holiday Inn the night before, then brought the Nutmobile into Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel. It barely fit. "We had one-inch clearance on each side at the tollbooths," Marzzacco said. "I took my time."
And while the Peanutters don't need a special license to operate the Nutmobile, they do get training: two weeks on a closed course with the police on hand. The Nutmobile has a rear-mounted camera to assist with backing up, but it's still a nerve-wracking thing to drive. Plus, Schmidt points out, "This is our only vehicle, so if we go to the store for groceries, we're driving the Nutmobile." Fans assail the rig everywhere it goes, meaning the Peanutters never stop being brand ambassadors. "We're always on," Schmidt said.
Mallioux, who interviews and selects all of the Peanutters himself, adds that it's no small gamble for Planters to entrust its image to three young kids tooling around America in a gigantic peanut. "All of them need to be friendly and outgoing because they represent a $1 billion brand," he said. "We trust them. There's no direct supervision."
Despite the seven-hour driving days, the never-ending requirement to smile and dispense peanuts, and the frequent refueling required for a vehicle that gets only about 10 mpg, Schmidt considers being a Peanutter "an amazing opportunity." She didn't travel much during her college days. But in the past year, she says, "I've seen 30 states. It still blows my mind. My parents didn't think this was a real job, but now they're cool with it."
In fact, both Schmidt and Marzzacco, whose one-year gigs will come to an end next month, are feeling melancholy about leaving the Nutmobile. At least driving it around is good training for a hoped-for marketing career. "Our customer-service skills are great," Marzzacco said.
"If anything," Schmidt added, "it'll get future employers to stop and look at our resumes."