Our mothers and teachers always chided us for being disruptive, but if bakers and snack makers want to capture the attention — and dollars — of a new generation, they’re going to have to make a little noise.  

Think about the Super Bowl. Ten years ago, when it came to the commercials, consumers would simply tune in, sit back and watch. But thanks to Frito-Lay, a brand of Plano, TX-based PepsiCo, Inc., many consumers now watch to see if their commercial will air. Speaking to attendees at SNAXPO two years ago, Ann Mukherjee, then PepsiCo’s president of global snacks and insights, called it “disrupting” the marketplace.

People these days operate through “life hacks” — shortcuts to making daily life easier and more efficient — and companies such as Mondelez International, East Hanover, NJ, are hacking the marketplace. Speaking at the CES Consumer Technology Today conference in 2015, B. Bonin Bough, vice-president, chief media and eCommerce officer for Mondelez, coined the term “hackonomy,” or the idea of breaking things to make them work better.

“We refer to the term, ‘fearless marketing,’ a vision set forth by our fearless CMO, Dana Anderson,” said Mondelez’ Elise Burditt, brand manager, OREO North America. “She continues to push the organization, especially OREO as a marquee brand, to use fearless marketing as a ‘North Star’ in order to think differently and push brands into territories that capture consumer attention in new, compelling and, especially, culturally relevant ways.” 

Disruptive marketing has practically become the status quo, as companies find innovative — even colorful and quirky — ways to reach consumers where they live, eat, talk and even vote.   

How they vote

Shaking up the marketplace can mean more than creating buzz in the typical environment. Sometimes it’s beneficial to take a marketing campaign completely outside the norm and into an area that already has consumers’ attention. And there’s no better place — or time — than an election year.

The Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, has used the 2016 presidential campaign as a platform for promoting 22 varieties of Pop-Tarts through its Pop the Vote campaign. Throughout the year, store shelves can see as many as 30 Pop-Tart flavors, and Pop the Vote was developed to bring awareness to the line. “A lot of consumers don’t know we have so many mouth-watering flavors available,” said Angela Gusse, director of marketing for Pop-Tarts.

The company partnered with Spoon University, an online food trends resource aimed at and managed by college students across the nation. Part market research, part social media, the site curates contributed content from thousands of students on more than 100 campuses. The campaign kicked off in January with a survey of college students’ Pop-Tart preferences as well as thoughts on the election year ahead, followed by on-campus sampling events across the country. After all, Pop-Tarts are a portable product popular with college students, many of whom are participating in their first presidential election.

“ ‘Candidate profiles’ were developed, and Pop-Tarts encouraged fans to embrace the election atmosphere by learning more about the variety of flavors, maybe try something new and vote for their favorite to become the first-ever Pop-Tarts President,” Ms. Gusse said. At www.PoptheVote2016.com, consumers can view the profiles and vote for their favorite flavors, with the winning candidate being announced on the website later in the year.

Some brands are finding a more tongue-and-cheek way to play on the election climate, especially in a presidential race that has gained attention for having some rather outlandish moments.

In early March, Leaf Brands issued a press release announcing the Hydrox cookie’s plans to seek the National Cookie Party’s presidential nomination. In the announcement, Hydrox asked, “With all the nuts running for president, why not a cookie?” Taking a page from the actual race for president, Hydrox poked at its main competitor, the Oreo, for its production in Mexico. 

The Newport Beach-based company created a crowdfunding campaign on www.gofundme.com as an avenue for consumers to voice their opinions about cookies, politics and ingredient wars. All money raised on the crowdfunding site will be donated to KaBOOM!, a non-profit organization that provides playgrounds for US children living in poverty. 

Where, what they eat

While foodservice providers such as Burger King, Miami,  and Taco Bell, Irvine, CA, might be known for their memorable TV ads, they are also disrupting traditional marketing strategies by using their bread and bun products as the promotional tool, in some cases, with no information about the product at all.

As a sequel to its A.1. Halloween Whopper made with a black-bun baked with A.1. Thick and Hearty sauce, Burger King released in March its Angriest Whopper, built with a red bun that has been baked with hot sauce. According to a report in Advertising Age, Burger King is also promoting the red-bun Angriest Whopper in movie theatres, with ads that play like movie trailers, playing on the movie sequel feeling of the campaign, according to Advertising Age.

Taco Bell lured consumers into their stores by taking a similar concept a bit further and inviting them to pre-order a new product — without telling them what the product actually was. In January, the company issued a press release inviting people to pre-order a new, yet unnamed, product for pickup on Feb. 6. The official product reveal was set to air during a 30-second Super Bowl ad on Feb. 7.

“It’s a ‘blind’ pre-order … requiring just a small act of faith (not knowing what it is until you pick it up) to be at the very forefront of this impending phenomenon,” said Marisa Thalberg, Chief Marketing Officer for Taco Bell Corp.

Who they are

Calling today’s consumers “adventurous” eaters is quite the understatement, considering how many campaigns revolve around asking shoppers to purchase products without knowing what they are.

In early 2014, Frito-Lay placed three varieties of unnamed packages of its Doritos Jacked product on store shelves — one red, one yellow, one blue — each a flavor that was a mystery to shoppers. The company coined it its “Bold Flavor Experiment” and identified each variety only by its package color and product code. As an added incentive to purchase and vote for their favorite, consumers were also entered for a daily chance to win rewards that included $1,000 worth of gold coins.

That June, Frito-Lay revealed the flavors to be Caribbean Citrus Jerk, Spicy Street Taco and Chocolate Chipotle Bacon, with Spicy Street Taco emerging the victor to remain on store shelves.

But what the Doritos brand is best known for in the realm of consumer-generated marketing is its Crash the Super Bowl contest, where it actually recruited consumers themselves to create their own television ads. Speaking at SNAXPO on behalf of Frito-Lay at the time, Ms. Mukherjee described the motivation behind the campaign as putting the Doritos brand in the hands of a group of creative minds who were in a time of discovery in life. “After eight years of doing this … we’ve let the consumers do our ads, and they’ve done them well,” she said in 2014, adding, “We’ve never scored below No. 4 in the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter.”

Mondelez uses disruption to connect consumers with the OREO brand on a deeply personal level. One way the company accomplished this was through personalized packaging and e-commerce. “We saw great success and engagement from fans for the limited-time Colorfilled packs, especially around the holidays when consumers were increasingly looking for customized offerings for family, friends and colleagues with a personal touch when gifting,” Ms. Burditt said, noting that the Colorfilled personalized packaging created a stepping stone for other types of customizations and creating an entirely new dialogue with the brand’s consumer base.

In 2013, OREO launched its Wonderfilled campaign, which brought the brand to consumers in a whimsical way while encouraging them to see the world with openness and curiosity. This year, the brand took the campaign to the streets with its OREO Wonder Vault to bring awareness to its limited-edition Filled Cupcake flavor. The vault “popped up” in New York City for one day only, and people had a chance to have a peek inside. “Upon pulling a lever, consumers watched their personal sample of the limited edition cookies traverse through a virtual ‘Wonderfilled’ world before physically dropping into their hands,” Ms. Burditt explained, adding that the Wonder Vault could pop up in any city, at any time.

Where they live

Reaching consumers through disruption doesn’t necessarily require a grand statement — at least in the beginning. Creating noise can start in an intimate place, right at home.

In his book Small Data, branding consultant Martin Lindstrom explores ways that product innovation and trends start in consumers’ homes. His book title came from observations he picked up while visiting thousands of households in the US and more than 70 other countries, noticing seemingly insignificant cues — the small data — that can lead to bigger trends in a sort of butterfly effect.

“Over the past decade, I’ve seen consumers’ cupboards, refrigerators and shelves, all to understand food habit, and time after time, I’ve been shocked to learn how many untouched opportunities exist in almost every home,” Mr. Lindstrom said. “This should be a starting point for every company operating in the baked food and snack industries: understanding eating habits and exploring new dimensions of consumption patterns like new rituals, old traditions or rosy memories.”

He pointed out that eating preferences are not usually built-in, and habits are not created suddenly. Tastes are acquired. Preferences are built. “Most, if not all preferences we have as adults are built into our brains when we are young,” Mr. Lindstrom explained. “And we link memory with taste.” To that effect, companies such as General Mills, Minneapolis, are finding success in playing on the nostalgia of sugary cereals by marketing them to older adults rather than kids.

Ready-to-eat (RTE) cereal is an area that’s waning, according to Jared Koerten, senior analyst, Euromonitor, who presented the state of the snacking industry at the SNAXPO conference in March, noting that the category has seen an average decline of about 2% over the past five years.

Also presenting at SNAXPO, Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group, noted that sweet cereals have become prime late-night snacking fare for parents who are otherwise making health-conscious food choices for their kids. “I see a lot of cereal commercials taking place at night now,” Mr. Siefer observed. “It has little to do with the health aspect, but they’ll talk about how they just put the kids to bed, and they’re ready to have fun.”

According to a 2014 article in Fortune magazine, General Mills attributed sales growth for its Lucky Charms brand to marketing the cereal to adults who grew up with it.

Mr. Lindstrom suggested that the key to introducing — and maintaining — a truly powerful product comes down to understanding those childhood memories and innovating from there. “Once you can pick up that small data, I fundamentally believe that true innovation happens when combining two ordinary things in a completely new way,” he said.

According to Ms. Burditt, a traditional medium such as television is still a viable avenue to disrupt an audience and take advantage of cross-platform marketing. “We still see TV as an important medium whether it’s disruptive content, a new Wonderfilled message or launching a new product offering like our OREO Thins launch in summer 2015,” she said.

Ms. Burditt looks at television as a way to drive not only awareness but also engagement. Think of how many television shows and ads have a social media hashtag placement in the corner of the screen. Mondelez jumped on this opportunity by partnering with Chirpify, a digital marketing platform that converts social media activity into consumer engagement such as loyalty programs and instant calls to action. OREO aired a TV spot that featured a one-time hashtag. “Viewers who used the hashtag received a free pack of our limited edition offering at the time, and we went through tens of thousands of packs in a matter of minutes,” she said.