Season 3 EP 4
April 27, 2021
Justin Parnell, Senior Director of OREO at Mondelez International, on staying playful, building a doomsday vault in Norway, and being an “and” brand.
By Carolyn Hadlock
Executive Creative Director
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One of my favorite things to do as ECD for the agency is judge North American Effies. I’ve always been a fan of the OREO brand, but it wasn’t until I read its gold-winning case study that I understood the depth of its brilliance. So I was delighted to be introduced to Justin by a colleague who works with him. He was succinct, clear-eyed and passionate about branding. He’s one of the few people in the industry who really does love his job. But then again, it’s OREO.

I like to lurk on people’s LinkedIn “About ” page. One thing that stood out in yours was how you talked about wanting to drive growth and sales, but also drive cultural impact. What does that mean for you and the brand?

That’s a very good question to start off on. For a legacy brand like OREO — we’ll be 110 years old next year — it’s so important that we maintain our relevancy. And I think how we do that is by engaging with our fans in culture. Really understanding what they’re interested in, what their passion points are, and how OREO can tap into those in an interesting way. And it varies, right? We’re trying to speak to and engage with teens and young adults, and that led us to a collab with Supreme. Or you think about millennial parents and what they and their children are interested in, and that led to a collab with the Trolls. Or the Lady Gaga partnership, which has been a massive hit most recently. It’s an old brand, it can get tired easily. So we have to really work hard to ensure that we’re driving that relevancy.

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OREO began doing limited edition flavors in 2012 when they celebrated their 100th anniversary with the Birthday Cake OREO

I also love the transformation I’ve seen in the industry around more purpose, cause-based marketing. It means a lot to me to do good in the world. And I think brands like OREO have the ability to make a positive impact. So I think about being culturally relevant as also standing up for what’s good and what’s right. And taking positions and understanding how we, even as a little cookie, can actually fight for a more inclusive, accepting world. We’ve seen that we can have a very positive impact.

OREO covers so a lot of territory in that space, like your Pride initiative for the LGBTQ community. But we’ve seen that brands can create issues for themselves when they go into potentially polarizing territory. How do you navigate these kinds of efforts?
I was having a conversation earlier this week with one of our agency leaders and we were talking about how OREO is an “and” brand. Sometimes there’s this sort of fallacy that you’ve gotta be true to your roots or your core consumer, or you’ve got to break through and appeal to the next generation. You can’t be for empty nesters and gen Z-ers, right? Most of the things we do are rooted in our core essence, which is all about family connections. OREO is this nostalgic, playful cookie. It reminds you of sitting around the kitchen table with your siblings or your parents twisting, looking, and dunking. That’s the quintessential OREO moment. And a lot of what we do is reminding people in a modern way of that simple joy-filled moment of eating an OREO with those you love.

Then we figure out ways to take that core essence of family connections, like stronger bonds through the playfulness of this cookie and this brand. How can you elevate that and tap into some topics that can have more of an impact? So the Proud Parents campaign is that at its heart is about the most important bond I would argue we have, with our parents and our families. A lot of LGBTQ individuals struggle with coming out because they fear that bond breaking. And this is a moment where we can really celebrate acceptance and inclusivity in the household, which feels so right for OREO. It’s all based on the core essence of the brand and what we stand for. So we can do some things that are very much targeted to our family audience, but fully lean in to opportunities to surprise, delight, and appeal to a broad audience.

Google did a survey a couple of years ago where we’re the number one food and beverage brand among gen Z. We’re also the number one brand among millennials and empty-nesters.

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Wow, that’s like the Holy Grail. So tell me, how did the Lady Gaga OREO come to be?

We’ve tapped into music for many years, as a way of expression. It can be very playful. We launched Stay Playful, our big brand idea campaign on the Grammy’s with Wiz Khalifa and his son Sebastian.

We’ve had conversations over the years around what would it look like if we took it to the next level and brought it to a full 360 activation with a major artist. We started conversations around the campaign with Lady Gaga in March or April of last year. Great timing, right? We recognized there’s a ton of an angst in the world right now, and uncertainty. We were trying to really celebrate the playfulness, despite our challenges of being removed from one another. But we said, the world’s going to need something to really lift our spirits. And it took us right back to music. This was a prime opportunity to really put something out in the world that was just joyful.

Lady Gaga was the perfect partner. She is such an incredible creative artist, playful in her own right. She’s very focused on doing good in the world, and I can say this firsthand from working with her and her team. Spreading kindness is really her platform.

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As an added precaution, the OREO packs are wrapped in mylar, which can withstand temperatures from -80 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and is impervious to chemical reactions, moisture and air, keeping the cookies fresh and protected for years to come.”

One of my favorite creative executions last year was the OREO Doomsday Vault. I know the idea came from a tweet but then how did it happen from there?

We actually had an open brief with one of our agency partner where any creative in the agency could respond to an opportunity that that was relevant for OREO, and what’s happening in culture. One of the creative teams came across this tweet that an asteroid was coming toward the earth, and someone asked and “Who would save the OREOs?” And that led to this whole idea like, well, how could we save the OREOs? What would that actually look like? The creative team found this global seed vault, which is real in Norway, which stores core commodities for if we ever were hit by an asteroid. And we said, what if we actually create an OREO vault?

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And I remember having the conversation with the agency and being like, “Well, we’re not really gonna go there. We’ll do this in a studio, it’s kind of a joke.” And they’re like, “No, we’re going to Svalbard, Norway, and we’re going to build a vault.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it taps into that serious love and passion for this brand. A real person was concerned about who would save the OREOs. People would actually want the OREOs to be saved in perpetuity. And it actually sparked the conversation and huge earned media pickup. The PR impressions were close to a billion, just because it was such an interesting idea. And I think it was done within 30 days from idea to out the door, which is pretty impressive.

I know you started your career and on the agency side. It seems like the model of going more project-based versus having an Agency of Record is becoming trendy, and yet you don’t really have that relationship model. What do you look for in your agencies?

First, I would caution marketers that are going to the project-based model. I’m a huge believer in relationships and true partners that you’re working hand in hand with. You can get some good work if you engage on a project basis. No doubt. But there’s so much more value when you’ve got partners that are invested with you and have been invested with you long-term. So I guess my advice would be just kind of go at your own risk when it comes to sort of trying to shift away from that. And I understand there’s a lot of pressure on marketing budgets and there’s a push in that direction, but I do really believe that when you invest in that partnership, it’s truly a partnership. It’s an investment on both sides.

I talk a lot to my team about like, we get the work that we deserve. And so it means that we really play a key part in building a relationship that’s filled with trust. And we owe it to our team to be clear on a brief’s direction. And I think that’s what unlocks the best work.

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OREO Display from 1950

Your team is inventive and innovative. How do things move as quickly as they move and get out the door?

I have three groups within my team. There’s equity, which does a lot of communications and digital identity ideas, like the vaults or Lady Gaga. And then innovation — so all the flavor innovation, product news, they handle that. And then I have commercial, which is more managing the operations of the business day to day. Each of those groups together, as well as individually, have created agile ways of working, particularly with our agency partners. I think what’s pretty common in the packaged goods, food and beverage space is that marketing has a heavy role in operation and P&L management. We play a lot with the cookie itself, which is not easy, for those that know consumer packaged goods. And we have long timelines. We’re used to producing, millions of pounds out of huge production lines. So we’ve been able to actually impact the product on incredible timelines.

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“Right now e-commerce is huge for us. We just launched OREO ID, which allows consumers to customize their OREO.”

I think through leaning in and challenging ourselves, we’ve learned how to cut timelines in half, or to a third. That’s a competitive advantage. And we’re continuing to do that right now. Right now e-commerce is huge for us. We just launched OREO ID, which allows consumers to customize their Oreos. That unlocks even more because we can create super personalized experiences immediately. But that required a totally different model from our big manufacturing production model that we’ve had historically.

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“Actually, we saw Jimmy Fallon do it on his show, moving an OREO from your forehead down to your mouth without using your hands. And we said, “This is really fun. It seems like it would work on TikTok.”

I also wanted to talk about TikTok. Every brand is struggling, and you guys just seem to be, once again, a pioneer and early adopter. How would you advise brands get into it?

In full transparency, we’re still learning. I think what helped us is we made some early bets on TikTok, around specific campaigns where we put out challenges to the TikTok audience that just caught on. I think core to TikTok you’d tap into the big influencers, they’re the ones that will jumpstart campaign that will sort of catch fire. So I think we applied some of the basic learnings around how that audience responds. We did the Most Stuff challenge in January. Then we did the Cookie with a Cause challenge right after the lockdown, which was a fun game that people were already doing. And we tied it to a donation to help kids in need during the pandemic. And so the Cookie with a Cause challenge caught on.

Now, where we’re learning a lot more is around organic, like building the community of OREO TikTok fans. That’s a new territory for us. We’ve learned from our peers, like Nutter Butter. I’m talking to my Nutter Butter friends and saying, “How did you guys do it?” But we’re seeing a lot of traction now with more always-on content and building that OREO fan base, but it’s new for us. You have to think about it very differently than you would think about any social platform. And we’re trying to just learn the best practices and how OREO activates. But you think about OREO’S Stay Playful. There’s no better platform than TikTok to celebrate playfulness and expression.

For sure. And just that experimental nature. I know you guys have so many flavors, and you’ve done a lot of licensing agreements, a lot of brand extensions. Is there ever a bridge too far for OREO?

Hmm, very good question. So interestingly, the strategy on flavors and limited additions on OREO is all about driving the original black and white cookie. It’s actually pretty simple. So what happens, when we launch a great limited edition or flavor, we get displays in store. Those displays 95% of the time have core OREO on them. And what you see is that consumers will pick up their classic, tried and true in addition to this innovative, limited edition.

Oreo Limited Edition

“I gave an interview to the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, and I think their editor said it best: it’s an advertisement. The limited edition is an advertisement for OREO. That’s brilliant.”

Okay. Last question. I ask this to everybody: how would you define beautiful thinking?

Oh, I love that question. For me, it’s like thinking about possibilities. Imagining things that seem so far out of reach at the time, but pushing yourself to be like, how could it get there? I was actually thinking earlier this week, if you were to tell me five years ago that OREO would have done a collab with the number one street wear brand, the number one pop star in the world, worked with Wiz Khalifa, I just would have been like, ”What?” It’s so important not just for brand leaders, but just creative thinkers in general to envision what may seem impossible at the time. And to me, that’s beautiful. And it’s why I love doing marketing. It’s why I love my job.