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How Hostess Could Have Avoided Becoming So Irrelevant

The Internet is abuzz with sad Twinkie jokes today after it was announced that Hostess is declaring bankruptcy, and selling their most cherished assets (Wonderbread, Hostess Cupcakes, et. al.) to the highest bidder. At first glance, this seems totally strange and unnecessary. Hostess is an iconic company with products that have become important parts of culture. Many companies would kill for that kind of recognition and cachet. Couldn’t we all work together and save those cream-filled treats that so many of our dads pig out on?

But Hostess does have a weakness, one that many companies are suddenly running into – they’ve rested on their laurels for too long without realizing their customer base is getting older, maybe even dying off. What have they done to appeal to young people? Millennials are quite different beasts who demand exotic, “self-actualized” products coming from companies with integrity. Read this study for more background.

Here is a quick list of traits that define millennials:

-They like food to feel healthy or “wholesome.” That’s one reason why the top-growing food right now is yogurt.
-They often prefer experiences to things.
-They like exotic, world-inspired flavors.
-They police brand reputations and inspire demand for eco-friendly, responsible operations.

Looking at that list, it’s clear that Hostess wasn’t paying attention to any of those things. Compare this to Campbell’s, who recently launched a whole line of soups aimed exclusively at millennials. Apparently in the process, they went so far as to have researchers “bar hop” with them to understand what it is that makes them tick. Overkill or no, when you look at millennials, different types of products become necessary.

So what could Hostess have done to remain relevant? A couple ideas:

1. The obvious – run their company with integrity

There used to be a time when you could treat workers like crap and customers might not even hear about it. The Internet put that time to rest. While Hostess’ mismanagement of money and poor treatment of workers definitely burned it into the ground, it also cemented the fact that the company would never be the least bit inspiring to Gen Y.

2. Taken a deep look at their nutrition

Apparently, young people are snacking more than ever, and their favorite type of snacks are “on-the-go” foods. This is perfect for Hostess! Except the top types of snacks are things like granola bars and, as mentioned above, yogurt. That’s because young people  are viewing snacks as fuel for life, rather than just “therapy” or a reward for a good day. Could they have provided some healthier snacks that followed these trends?

3. Gotten less vanilla

Food trucks are a favorite with millennials, in part because of their ability to introduce them to other culture’s flavors and foods. Even chocolate companies are realizing that people want weirder flavors like wasabi, chile or bacon. Couldn’t Hostess have looked at this and stuffed those cakes with something other than white goo?

4. Created experiences, some how some way

To attain a Hostess product, you basically have to go to a gas station or a grocery store. How could Hostess have made their products available at places that millennials associate with fun? Concerts, art events, etc.? Could they have participated with chef or foodie culture to create “hostess remixes” or thrown events that challenge people to do something different (a la Redbull Crashed Ice)?

The downfall of Hostess seems unnecessary, but when you take a look at changing trends, it would have been  inevitable sooner or later, if they didn’t start paying attention to culture. This just proves that it’s worth thinking ahead when it comes to catering to millennials. And that’s not so bad. What they want, basically, is something healthier and more interesting, made by a company that does right by their customers, their employees and the (gradually warming) world. RIP HoHos.

-Becky Lang

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