Processed, Pressed and Pissed
Hormel wants to restore canned meat's good name
Young YouTubers viewing SPAM-themed parodies by Weird Al Yankovic and Monty Python are discovering that spam is not just junk e-mail; it's something they can cube, pair with pineapple and nibble on while deleting those messages. Viewers of the parodies seem fixated by what exactly is in SPAM (the food), with one confused user even asking, "Does SPAM have anything to do with Microsoft?" The answers: precooked pork, salt, sugar, and no, there seems to be no merger in the works for Microsoft and Hormel, the maker of SPAM (though you never know these days).
SPAM canned meat, it turns out, enjoyed a dedicated following among hunters, campers and Hawaiians long before the digital set was born. The resurgence of the brand's name among a new generation is a big reason why Hormel launched a TV, print and online campaign in January 2008 around a reconstructed Web site (spam.com) packed with social media, trivia, history, games and, of course, recipes. Lots of recipes. Anybody for SPAM-stuffed mushrooms or SPAM-and-cheese scones?
The whole effort is presented in a campy 1950s style that plays off SPAM's role in pop culture while pushing its convenience and, shall we say, unique flavor. In case there's any question, the site asserts that SPAM (the meat) hates spam (the e-mail). "We oppose the act of 'spamming' or sending unsolicited commercial e-mail. If you have received UCE with a return address using our Web site address, it wasn't us," Hormel says. "We have never engaged in this practice, although we have been victimized by it."
Urban lore holds that spam became slang for unsolicited electronic messages thanks to a Monty Python's Flying Circus skit set in a café where everything on the menu has SPAM in it. A group of customers - who happen to be Vikings - chant "Spam, spam, spam ..." until they drown out other conversation. E-mailers glommed onto the word as shorthand for the onslaught of junk messages filling their inboxes. Hormel fought the association for years, but seems to have developed a more accepting view. A company spokesman says it's "nice" that Gmail spam folders sometimes offer links to SPAM recipes.
To play up its Python connection, spam.com features an interactive game based on characters in Spamalot, Monty Python's Broadway hit (and winner of three Tony awards). The site also touts the SPAM Museum at Hormel headquarters in Minnesota, the annual SPAMARAMA festival in Austin and the SPAMMOBILE, a converted trolley that distributes samples around the world.
"Hormel is wisely embracing the spirit of its iconic brand," says Michael Megalli, partner in marketing consultancy Group 1066. "Rather than being the butt of the joke, they are joining in on the joke and are willing to poke fun at themselves." People may sometimes mock SPAM, but "if consumers buy it and serve it ironically, what does the company care?"
The good people of the Hormel Foods Corporation - at least officially - see it a bit differently.
"Our name is a funny word, and we enjoy that, but the brand does not poke fun at itself, nor do we think people buy our product for the irony," says Dan Goldman, SPAM's product manager. The quirky messaging "is designed to be a fun and simple way to break through the clutter and focus on the convenience and taste of the product," he says.
Whether ironic or wholesome, the unabashedly campy marketing revolves around the graphic blue and yellow SPAM can. Like Andy Warhol did for the Campbell's soup can in 1962, Hormel is trying to elevate its package to pop art. "Our can is our icon; it's recognized around the world," Goldman says. "We are boldly tapping the visual heritage of this legacy brand," says Brian Kroening, executive creative director at Hormel's agency, BBDO, Minneapolis. Three TV ads, which broke this winter, show animated characters coming to life to chase SPAM products. Print ads in mainstream magazines and in outdoor and auto-racing publications focus on the can with "SPAM" modified to say "ASAP" or "MMMM."
Research showed that people saw SPAM as a guilty pleasure and loved it despite themselves, so phrases such as "crazy tasty" and "strangely irresistible" were scattered through the ads and Web site, Kroening says. The ads are slated to run through October.
To attract young consumers, the company upgraded its fan club on the site and added user-created artwork and poems that fans can share. "The site is our portal for all of SPAM's history, trivia, events and product information, and a way to build a sense of community among our customers," Goldman says.
In February, traffic to the fan club increased 200 percent and visitors to the site viewed 23 percent more pages on the site compared to the month before, Goldman says. Visitors were spending more time there - an average of seven minutes - but the number of total visits had not grown prior to the campaign, Goldman says. SPAM sales have been on an upswing since late 2007 and continue upward with the marketing effort, and sales of single servings of SPAM - introduced in July 2007 - have surged with the new ads, he says.
Could SPAM's fan base possibly turn it from a commodity into a cult brand? Heck, it worked for Pabst Blue Ribbon.
"Savvy marketers build online communities not solely on products, but by thinking about lifestyle," says Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang. "There are thriving communities around products, but when you look deeper, the discussions are about how the members live and work and what motivates them."
"Spam can only put the pieces in place and encourage people to spread around their feelings about the product," Megalli says. "They have to allow the energy behind the brand to take its course without controlling it."And users' loathing for spam, the e-mail, may actually give a boost to SPAM, the brand. Says Goldman, "We're not really sure if the slang use of our name helps or hurts. But if spam e-mail folders give us another fun place to tell people about our product, then all the better."