Tired of Tradition, Honey Maid’s Marketing Chief Chose to Put the Spotlight on Modern Families

Adweek’s 2015 Brand Genius winner for CPG/food

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It always seemed strange to Gary Osifchin that the characters in traditional advertising were so, well, traditional. "There was the Caucasian female lead, with the French manicure," Osifchin says, "or the black guy in a secondary role only."

TV spots had been this way for years, but Osifchin recognized a problem with it. "How," he asks, "can consumers connect with [your brand] if that's all you're showing?"

That nagging question led Honey Maid and its agency Droga5 to break with decades of standard practice. In 2014, packaged foods giant Mondelez sought to overhaul Honey Maid, a household name and a staple in American pantries. Getting consumers to take a fresh look at a 90-year-old brand of graham crackers would require a truly different approach.

So, it went in search of 21st century families—gay, single-parent, mixed-race and immigrant, for example. There were no actors, just regular people shot in a documentary-style for TV spots, digital shorts and other content under the tagline "This is wholesome."

When the effort debuted last year, it went viral, putting Honey Maid on the social media map. It also drew its share of haters.

Osifchin says Honey Maid did not set out to be overtly political. The product had added whole grains and removed high-fructose corn syrup, so the marketing lead thought it was logical to connect a contemporized brand with contemporary families. "We wanted to show that what wholesome looks like may have changed, but at its heart it's the same," Osifchin says. "It's a nice parallel between product changes and changes in American culture."

But latching onto the word "wholesome," even though it had long been a part of Honey Maid's messaging, was itself a loaded proposition. Some consumers objected to the families depicted in the ads. For Osifchin, it was familiar territory: During his tenure as marketing director at Dentyne and Stride, he had championed creative featuring biracial couples and African-American characters. For Honey Maid, Osifchin also didn't shy away from what he and his colleagues knew would be a hot-button topic. In fact, they were so confident that they didn't test the concept before the spring launch, and when hate mail did start to flow in, they made another ad out of that. The spot, dubbed "Love," commissioned an art piece from printouts of actual consumer feedback, which was 10-to-1 positive.

Honey Maid's experience mirrored that of General Mills' Cheerios, which featured an interracial family in a 2013 spot called "Just Checking" and came in for such vitriol that it wound up shutting down its comments section. Because Osifchin suspected the backlash Honey Maid would likely face, his leadership was all the more inspiring, according to Kevin Brady, Droga5 executive creative director. "What's impressed me is his bravery," Brady says. "This is a risk because we're talking about an issue that America isn't united behind. Brands are often afraid of what that will do to their bottom line."

For Honey Maid, the numbers did not suffer. Quite the contrary, in fact. The brand has notched six consecutive quarters of sales growth and 4.3 percent sales growth in the past year. Its social media presence has gone from zero to more than 172,000 Facebook and Twitter followers—a 660 percent improvement in social media engagement overall. "This Is Wholesome" videos have been viewed 24 million times.

"This Is Wholesome" has become a long-term campaign for the brand that includes real-time marketing (a response to the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling) and new variations around the theme of diverse households (spots that include divorced parents).

"To Gary," Brady says, "this wasn't just a random statement brought to you by a cracker [brand]. It's true to a brand that's rooted in families."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.