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Food For Thought

What do actor Ashton Kutcher, personal trainer Jillian Michaels, and singer Katy Perry have in common, besides their long hair, good looks, and superstar status? They’re among a growing legion of so-called marketing “popstars” for popchips, one of the fastest-growing snack brands in the U.S.

In addition to being brand evangelists, all three celebs are investors in the company, with Kutcher serving as the president of pop culture. “These relationships started organically and evolved from there,” says Brian Pope, senior vice president of marketing at popchips. “They are committed to the long-term success of the brand.” As are the thousands of influencers across the country who are using social media platforms and other creative tools to help build the brand “one snacker at a time.”

Pope, who will speak at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference October 10-13 in Orlando, Fla., shared the secrets behind popchips’ remarkable ascent.

Q. Your marketing philosophy is to acquire, engage, and inspire brand evangelists. You connect locally through field marketing, and digitally through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other social media channels. Why is one-to-one communication, as opposed to a mass media approach, key to driving growth at popchips?

A. We knew we were taking on a competitive category and we didn't have unlimited marketing funds, so we needed to get creative. From the outset we focused on grassroots marketing to build our brand. Our philosophy is “one snacker at a time.” To help accomplish that, we've focused on seeding influencers and tastemakers in our key markets. These range from nutritionists and fitness trainers to PTA moms, marketing professionals, college ambassadors, and sometimes celebrities. It also includes everyday snackers who are passionate fans of the brand and become our evangelists.

We use a variety of tools to help seed influencers. These include sending out a personalized care package with a handwritten note that includes a simple tool for them to "pop it forward" to three of their favorite snackers. We also arrange to let some fans host snack breaks at their companies, turning them into the office “snack hero.”

We think of ourselves as a “social brand,” so social marketing has come very naturally to us -- it’s part of our DNA. Early on, we saw social media as one of the best vehicles to amplify some of our other marketing programs and build on our vision of connecting with and empowering snackers to spread the word. We built our social media platforms with that focus in mind.

The combination of a compelling product and our personal outreach and marketing tools has helped turn our fans into passionate ambassadors and evangelists for popchips. No ad is more powerful than an excited fan sharing a new passion.

Q. You have said that your field marketing teams have elevated your brand and that there is “huge power in letting go because great things can happen.” Please elaborate on that statement, and explain how you keep your field teams on the same page.

A. Our strategy has been to build the brand one city at a time and connect locally one snacker at a time. To accomplish this, we have built a team of marketing “popstars” in each of our core markets. They represent popchips locally and act as the CMO of their city. They get popchips into the right events, build relationships with the top influencers, and develop local partnerships. They have their finger on the pulse of that city in a way we couldn’t do centrally, and because they have strong local relationships, they can get things done quickly and cost-effectively.

It's amazing the level of creativity that can be unleashed when a talented group of people are empowered to really own their markets versus just implementing a corporate plan. Sure, it takes a great deal of communication and you have to establish brand guidelines, but there is far more upside in decentralizing marketing than downside risk. We certainly can’t outspend the big brands in our category, so we have to move quicker and we have to be more creative. Our field marketing popstars are our secret weapon.

Q. Creating compelling content that sparks conversations is an integral part of your engagement strategy. Please share an example of how you’re empowering fans to join these conversations. What are some best practices for making it work?

A. I believe marketing today is all about creating and engaging in conversations. These conversations can be broad-based and stimulated by brand initiatives, or they can be one-on-one with our snackers. Early on, we recognized the need to dedicate meaningful resources, including building the right team, to ensure that we connected with our snackers. It started with recruiting a talented community manager to help monitor conversations across social platforms, building a creative content calendar, and ensuring we maintain our social voice. Our brand personality comes to life through our posts, and the more fun we can make them, the more likely our snackers will be to engage and share our content.

We integrate social elements into our field marketing, including leveraging our local presence through localized Twitter accounts, and create social content from our brand programs, events, and celebrity relationships. A great example of a social media campaign that created conversation and empowered consumers to become brand ambassadors was one we developed with Ashton Kutcher. The campaign was a crowdsourced job search for a vice president of pop culture to support Ashton and identify what was popping in popular culture. More than 230 people submitted videos applying for the job and over 100,000 fans voted for their favorites. The winner selected for the job is working with Ashton to create digital content for popchips and reporting from pop culture events throughout the year.

This is a quickly evolving space and it’s challenging to try to keep up with new technology and platforms. It’s important that we listen, study engagement metrics, and learn what our fans find most compelling. We also try to spend time with other brands and share best practices. Social media is as much a science as an art, and we are always learning and adapting.

Q.In your Twitter bio, you claim to be “a big fan of killer marketing ideas.” How do you define a killer marketing idea? What is the formula for successfully executing one?

A. Today's consumers have grown up surrounded by marketing and brands competing for their attention. Regardless of what you do and where you go, there is a brand ready to interrupt you. So out of sheer survival, we enlist the help of DVRs, pop-up blockers, satellite radio, and Spotify subscriptions to filter out most of this noise. What’s ironic is that most consumers really like marketing when it’s relevant and done in a creative way. And they like to feel connected with the brands they love.

I think a killer marketing idea is one that allows a brand to communicate something unique about itself in a way that is so compelling, entertaining, and relevant that people invite it into their lives and want to share it with others. That’s a pretty tall order, but I see creative marketers and agencies breaking through this clutter every day. Sadly, there’s no exact formula, but the ingredients include a willingness to talk to your consumer as an individual, not a demographic, and to think in terms of one-on-one communication versus mass communication.

This individual connection can be truly personal, like what Google Chrome created with its partnership with Arcade Fire in “The Wilderness Outside,” or it can come through an ad campaign like the Old Spice guy, which felt like he was talking to you. It also requires the willingness to take a risk. If you spend all day trying to satisfy a committee or worrying about getting fired, you’ll tend to create boring, middle-of-the-road ideas. I expect we’ll see an increase in killer marketing ideas driven by the personalization of social media, the merging of entertainment and marketing, and the sheer competitive requirement to connect with your consumer before they disconnect with you.

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