Heinz Ketchup - The Cultural Unicorn

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The Big Brand Theory is a new blog series that shares a peek at our purposeful process. Each month we'll feature a new topic and explore it from all the right angles.  Every Thursday, our Copywriter and Communications Strategist, Holly, will be your guide through the ages of advertising.

Today, I want to talk about “cultural unicorns".  Never heard of them? Well, a “cultural unicorn” is a term I like to use which describes a cultural artifact (brand, product, object) that you are fairly certain was a real thing. You have a foggy memory of its existence, you’ve asked friends if they remember it too, but you aren’t quite certain if it's all in your head - some mythological-nostalgia-creature of your childhood.  But you're sure enough that you'd bet there's an online forum dedicated to it - you just haven’t found it yet. That, my friends, is a “cultural unicorn”.

Once, as a child, I was grocery shopping with my Mom at the A&P and saw an end-cap display of sparkly Heinz Ketchup. I thought it was stupid and ran away. I never saw it again. Little did I know, that I had spotted my first “cultural unicorn”.

For a brief period in 1997, Heinz Canada released Sparky, the Sparkle Ketchup. It was green lit exactly how you think a product like this would have to be - some big wig’s 6-year-old wanted it. Sparky looked exactly like you feared - like a teaspoon of silver glitter stirred into Ketchup. An advertising campaign developed by DDB Canada alluded to superheroes and magic powers all emanating from glittery lunches.

The funny thing about this campaign is that I can’t tell you how well it worked - there is little more online than a single press release from May 1997 and the vague recollections of myself and a few others. What we can learn, is at the time Heinz was willing to try something daring even with a comfortable 73% market share. And sometimes, playing the short game is enough to keep you on top of mind. I asked around on Twitter and Facebook and most of you can recall the questionable product line Heinz Ketchup rolled out three years later.

The idea behind it all was that kids found the typical Heinz Ketchup bottle too difficult to well, squirt. So Heinz designed a kid-friendly bottle, changed the name to Heinz EZ Squirt Ketchup and added a twist - Ketchup would now be available in Blastin’ Green.

At first, it was a massive success. More than 10 million bottles were sold in the first seven months, with Heinz factories working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with demand. Heinz met its full-year sales goal for the new product in just 90 days, and green ketchup quickly acquired a 6% market share.

By sequentially rolling out new colours every few months, kids would want to “collect them all” and there was always another bottle of Ketchup for mom to buy. Over the next three years Heinz introduced Funky Purple, Passion Pink, Awesome Orange, Totally Teal and finally, Stellar Blue at 20 cents more per bottle than regular old Ketchup. It turned a condiment into a craft: your plate of fries was now your canvas with your creativity only limited by the colours of your Ketchup. This product lasted six years in the US before sales were discontinued.

Many articles say the Heinz EZ Squirt was a marketing failure. I disagree. I think we need to evaluate campaigns like this one for what they do well. In the fickle children’s market, where product trends barely last a season, this product lasted six years. Remember, we aren’t talking about candy or cereal here - we are talking about making a condiment fun.

Sure, EZ Squirt contradicted Heinz’s visual identity, but it got youth to consume and develop an emotional imprint to the taste of its product. For that brief period of time kids were playing, creating, having fun and laughing all while interacting with the brand. At the time of writing, a product that has been discontinued for seven years has a Bring Back EZ Squirt Facebook page with 267 likes, and 80 pins of its image on Pinterest. Above all else, Heinz was willing to take a chance on a niche product when it was leading the market - and in today's world, that kind of chutzpah is harder to find than a unicorn. 

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