King’s Hawaiian Shuns Agencies; Lifts Sales Big Time

Posted on by Patty Odell

Four years ago, Erick Dickens joined King’s Hawaiian with a tough task, grow the brand, build a marketing team and don’t expect much of a budget.

The fresh bread and rolls category was headed south, the brand had anemic unaided awareness, purchase frequency was in the danger zone and consumers referred to its products as those sweet “rolls in the orange bag.” The brand made hay at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, but that was about it.

King's Hawaiian
Eric Dickens, vice president of marketing, King’s Hawaiian

“That’s not a very safe place to be,“ says Dickens, King’s Hawaiian’s vice president of marketing.

At the time, industry headlines pointed to the death of TV and print. Reports pressed the position that really smart marketers were diving into digital and social. Dickens tried some things early on, but they didn’t move the needle. He says it was easy to think King’s Hawaiian should follow the crowd, but “that might not necessarily be right for the business.”

“The industry is telling me TV is broken, and that I need to focus on digital. It’s more fun. It’s cool. That’s where consumers are, but when we put the message out there, it didn’t resonate,” he says.

He began to make some adjustments. One was to shun the traditional agency model and strike out largely on his own, developing relationships directly with partners. He does have an agency of sorts.

“I do have an agency, it’s a guy, a former CCO at McCann Erikson LA,” he says.

He discovered 88% of video content was still consumed on TV. He realized that TV wasn’t broken, just the way marketers were using it.

“If you’re going to do TV you have to think big,” Dickens said at the ANA Brand Masters Conference last month. “We work directly with the properties to minimize non-working media dollars. You can cut out a lot of fees that way and it’s not hard to do. You just have to make relationships, he says, calling out his contact at Scripps Media, who was seated in the audience. “You don’t need to hire an agency to say hi to Andrew.”

He dove into creating quality content that would play out across live events and on media where people are less likely to time shift, like live news broadcasts, concerts, sporting events and awards shows.

Last year, King’s Hawaiian sponsored Good Morning America’s summer concert series. As part of the sponsorship, it tapped Jeff Mauro, the host of Food Network’s “Sandwich King,” who called out—and used—King’s Hawaiian products on a live Memorial Day event kicking off the grilling season. Also at the event, GMA co-hosts served up King’s Hawaiian French Toast to the crowds.

The brand has also integrated products into “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and the “Taste Of Hawaii.” A King’s Hawaiian float appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and was called out by NBC weatherman Al Roker as being the first float to have a working waterfall.

“We’re always looking at doing something that’s either the first or the best,” he says. “We were able to put our brand in a very fun environment in TV content and we got some incremental press out of that because it was a first.”

KIng's Hawaiian
King’s Hawaiian made creatures out of rolls. The cover isn’t overly branded, and that’s intentional.

As part of his plan to work directly with partners, Dickens approached the publisher of Food Network magazine and developed a plan to take over the magazine’s October issue, a first for both the magazine and King’s.

And, the brand dipped into digital to “amplify what we’re doing offline,” Dickens says. Working off the comical consumer insight that customers feel the need to hide the rolls around the house for fear that someone will eat them all before they get the chance to indulge, it produced a commercial showing a mom doing just that—hiding the rolls. The spot was amplified online and in social with content showing the mom hiding rolls in more creative ways that didn’t appear in on TV.

“We used the same talent and the same crews to lower content creation costs,” he says.

The results are impressive. In 2016, unaided awareness was 7%, up 75%, total brand awareness was 74%, up 35%, household penetration—28.7%, up 29%, purchase frequency 3.8X +12%, engagement at 40%, up 29%, from 2013. The most important metric, sales, is proprietary as King’s Hawaiian is a private company, however, Dickens says that revenue has doubled over the last five years and profits are up six fold.

“We’re getting the message out in a way our consumers like,” Dickens says. “We have real low non-working fees. We don’t use the traditional agency model, I cherry pick people I’ve worked with. I’m their number one brand and they walk over hot coals for us.”

This year, the brand is looking to grow beyond bread, to the general Hawaiian foods category, but is “still figuring that out,” he says. King’s Hawaiian’s plan is to own summer, its weakest sales period, to drive more top of mind incremental occasion awareness and purchases.

It ran its first Super Bowl spot in February by using existing creative, signing for the spot just two weeks out and working directly with FOX. The “False Cabinet” spot placed No. 14 on the ad meter reaching 112 million viewers, and pulled in 352 million earned impressions and 9 million social-media impressions.

To build on the upcoming summer time frame, King’s Hawaiian will make some waves at retail, promoting the Aloha spirit as the summer of the block party and getting to know your neighbors. It will build on its sponsorship of the GMA summer concert series, where it will announce a sweepstakes with the winner getting the last summer concert held on their very own block.

“We haven’t been without failures, every time you start something new you have to adjust,” Dickens says. “If you’re able to objectively assess something you’ve done and it doesn’t work you have to move on. We’re our own worst critics.”

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