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“Believe it or not, Twinkies have an expiration date. Someday very soon, life’s little Twinkie gauge is going to go…empty.” — Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Zombieland

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1vYj0E2Hr0&feature=related

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” — Mark Twain

A letter to the Twinkie on the occasion of its “death”:

Dear Twinkie,

You and I were never especially close. Despite growing up in a typical ’80s home stuffed with every other heavily processed and commercialized snack imaginable, your appearances on our shelves were noticeably few and far between. I think even then, over 20 years ago, you were already perceived as a bit of a throwback — a fixture of my parents’ childhoods and nostalgia rather than my own.

twinkie brand strategyStill, as dated as you always seemed to me, there’s no denying you were also a constant, as timeless as many believed your shelf life to be. Over the years there has been something vaguely reassuring about that. And so I admit it – like so many others who have mourned your loss this past week, it’s only now that you’re gone that I realize I’m going to miss you.

But I think even more than your preservative-packed filling, it’s that reassurance we’re all truly mourning. That, and — strangely enough — a sense of ourselves. As ridiculous as that might sound, the fact is that over 82 years you managed to firmly lodge yourself in the arteries of American culture as a beloved (if beleaguered) brand. Like the black sheep at Thanksgiving, you may have been the butt of our jokes now and then, but deep down we’ve always been oddly fond and protective of you. After all, you may have been a cheap and excessively sweet purveyor of empty calories, but you were our cheap and excessively sweet purveyor of empty calories, damn it.

That’s why, also like so many others, I refuse to believe you’re going away for good. You’re simply too iconic. You hold such a curiously sticky place in our hearts.

As the frenzy that’s erupted with the announcement of your demise, followed by consumers’ “run on Twinkies” and the White House petition to “nationalize the Twinkie industry” indicates, you’ve got plenty of legs left, and if another company doesn’t take the opportunity to revive you, well, I’ll be shocked.

That said, I think there are lessons to be learned from Hostess’s mishandling of you, and pointers for those who want to take advantage of all the current momentum to relaunch you with a branding bang.

Twinkie Brand Strategy Lesson 1: Don’t Let Them Try to Make You Something You’re Not

Twinkie, you never were a gourmand’s dream, and that’s okay. You weren’t competing on quality. Likewise, those 100 calorie packs weren’t fooling anyone. If people wanted a healthy option they were going to go with something else.

twinkie brand strategyWhen it comes to junk food, you’re Exhibit A. You were never going to escape that image. Rather than try to replace it, why not embrace it? While the other giants of fast food were struggling to give themselves a healthier makeover what did KFC do? It doubled down.

People love you for who you are. In fact, at state fairs nationwide , your popularity has reached new heights by diving to new, deep-fried depths of delicious unhealthiness. Why not run with it?

Twinkie Brand Strategy Lesson 2: Realize When Your Target Audience Has Changed

This ain’t the ’50s or even the ’80s. We’re in the midst of a healthier food movement and nutritional awareness is at an all-time high. Of course parents aren’t going to let their kids eat boxes of you. Why not stop marketing to them and start redirecting your messaging to focus on the nostalgia you generate in older groups and the curiosity you inspire as a cult favorite/snack food oddity in others?

A Modest Plan for Your Relaunch

Whatever company ends up buying the rights to your brand has a major opportunity to revitalize it via customer engagement and content marketing. Before they fire up the delivery trucks, make sure they’ve considered the following.

Step 1: Start a “Save the Twinkie” campaign

  • Create an interactive campaign website and utilize social media channels to encourage people to join the cause and get involved by posting stories, photos, and videos celebrating the Twinkie and calling for its rescue. Find ways to adapt and keep most popular features going even after campaign is over.
  • Take the opportunity to try new messaging, reaching out to the new audiences listed above.
  • Bring a celebrity endorsor to rally the effort. A humble suggestion.

Step 2: Thank America with a “Free Twinkie Day”

Holidays and free stuff are two things we can’t get enough of. And companies know that when you combine the two by celebrating a “Free _____ Day” the result is typically a long line of customers winding around the block.

In addition to media attention, celebrating a “Free Twinkie Day” to thank America for helping bring back the Twinkie is an opportunity to boost customer engagement and loyalty by driving home the point that they spoke and were heard, and that they each played a part in bringing the Twinkie back.

Step 3: Maintain engagement

As Timothy Halloran writes in his own goodbye to the Twinkie for the HBR Blog Network, “the strongest brands are the ones that can engage us deeply…. While Twinkies did not establish a passionate, marriage-like relationship with consumers, it created something in many of us that, when we heard of its demise, made us make a run on local grocery stores to grab one of the last remaining boxes.”

To image Twinkies could ever inspire profoundly deep customer engagement is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but the brand certainly won’t be starting from scratch, and a relaunch could absolutely provide an opportunity to reconnect and establish a stronger, more active relationship with its customers.

Will it ultimately work? That’s hard to say, but for now, Twinkie, I’ll save my mourning for another day — I don’t think it’s the last we’ve seen of you.

What do you think? Will the Twinkies brand be picked up? How would you handle a relaunch?

Jonathan Crowe is the Managing Editor for the OpenView Labs and Blog. He focuses on executing OpenView’s content marketing strategy, developing and publishing the best content possible to help expansion-stage technology companies grow and succeed.