Brand Strategy

How Pop-Tarts pulled off its unforgettable mascot sacrifice

Brand Marketing Head Heidi Ray shared how the stunt came to be and what the giant pastry was really made of.
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· 7 min read

On December 28, 2023, a sacrifice was performed on live TV.

The Strawberry Pop-Tarts mascot, who was introduced Eras Tour–style at the Pop-Tarts Bowl, worked the crowd (and the refs) before willfully giving up its life at the end of the game via giant-toaster submersion. The victors from Kansas State then feasted on its body and left it looking like Harvey Dent.

Even before the ritual sacrifice began, it was clear this was a marketing stunt gone right based purely on engagement and affinity. Feeds were full of religious references, marketing jokes, fan edits, and more. The stunt now has its own page on Know Your Meme.

“It was a really fun, adventurous, bold campaign,” Ryan McConnell, EVP at Kantar, told us. While at times the playfulness and risk-taking can get “squeezed out” in corporate sports sponsorships, he thinks Pop-Tarts could pave the way for that to change.

How does one pull off something as risky as a mascot sacrifice? We spoke with Heidi Ray, senior director of brand marketing for Pop-Tarts (and subject of viral praise), about what made the stunt—which became the brand’s single-biggest earned campaign to date—possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about how the idea of a “mascot sacrifice” came to be and got executive sign-off.

Going into this, our two objectives were, “Okay, we got a bowl game. This is an opportunity for us to show that Pop-Tarts aren’t just a breakfast item. It’s an occasion-agnostic, anytime, anywhere treat.” Second, a lot of people know Pop-Tarts…but our top-of-mind awareness is low. So [we wanted to] use a big stage like this to really break through and remind people of that latent love for the brand and the food…Knowing the brand ethos of “crazy good,” it makes sense that we would come up with ideas around college football bowl rituals and turning them on their heads.

How do we challenge the conventions of bowl rituals?...We did that with concession mashups that brought our food front and center; we did that with the trophy; and we also did that with another very classic, iconic element of the game, which is the mascot.

We have to completely give credit to our Weber Shandwick partners for the edible mascot part of it all. It made so much sense when you think about where the brand comes from—a “crazy good” convention-challenging place—that we wouldn’t just do a regular old mascot, we would do something that takes it to 11…

The thing that is important is that we stay true to the brand and that we protect the brand’s bold, edgy tone. It was never like there were a million sign-offs we had to get for this. The leadership at Kellanova very much wanted to protect and nurture what is so special about Pop-Tarts.

You compared the results you’ve seen so far to rivaling a Super Bowl moment. Were any stats particularly striking for you?

We, quite honestly, are still aggregating and continue to get coverage. We saw that our bowl game had in excess of 4.3 million viewers, which topped the Alamo Bowl and was 50-some percent higher than the [Pop-Tarts Bowl] game last year under a different brand. There’s been a stat batted around about $12 million of media value. The Prop-Tarts [interactive fan predictions] component of the program…had over 160,000 people sign up, wager, and enter. That’s 160,000 unique points of first-person data. So I think the metrics that we’ve seen so far are wildly successful.

Did you see any boost in sales as a result of this stunt?

We expect to see a sales impact for sure. The number of people who have responded on social with, “I hadn’t thought about Pop-Tarts in years, and now I’m going out to buy them”—that’s exactly the brief. So we expect to see that as the data starts coming in.

Obviously, there were a ton of posts about this stunt. Were there any that stood out to you as particular favorites?

Who knew that Frosted Strawberry was going to spawn a thousand memes? I think there’s a classic “RIP Frosted Strawberry, 2023–2023” one that keeps showing up everywhere that’s so funny. What’s most amazing is that we created something and put it out there, and people really embraced it and made it their own and had fun with it…It shows the love, the sort of latent love and equity that is in the world for this brand and what people feel the permission to do with it.

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I’m sure you saw it, but there was even a tweet where it showed a screenshot of your LinkedIn profile being like, “Give Heidi praise!”

Oh my gosh, somebody from 72andsunny was like, “I don’t want a [Cannes] Lion. I want someone to love what I made so much that they track me down on LinkedIn and demand I’m given my flowers.” And I was like, “That’s the funniest thing.” It’s overwhelming. It’s humbling.

But I mean, this was never ever like one team, one group, one person. Every single person on the team contributed something unique. Like there was the guy who thought, “Let’s have him hold this sign when he lowers himself into the toaster.” There was somebody who thought, “Let’s have him winking when the tart comes out.” It’s the collective ideas and creative genius that I think makes this team so special.

Were there any other things that made you think, “I’m really glad we chose to do that”?

I’m glad that we had a face on the mascot, and that it wasn’t just a plain old toaster pastry. It felt a little dark to have a face, but we were like, “Okay, let’s go bold. Let’s make sure we’re connecting the dots.” Putting real Pop-Tarts in the slots of the trophy was also another, like, “Yes, we should do that, we have amazing food.” And people loved that. And using our iconic foil to unveil the trophy.

On the edible tart, I have to ask: Was there any strategy or instruction given to the players on how to eat it? Because that final image of the eye was really circulating.

We didn’t give the players any instruction, but they knew going into this that there was going to be some sort of transformation and an edible mascot. And of course, they were all starving. They charged the stage a little bit before the trophy presentation and started chanting, “Toast that mascot!” And that was totally on their own, completely organic. What we love is just how we had this idea that we brought to life, but I think how special it has become is because fans and the players and everybody else put their fingerprints on it.

There was an extension to another Kellanova brand, Cheez-It, in concession offerings, and when its mascot held up a little sign saying it was non-edible. How did you work with the Cheez-It team?

From the beginning, Cheez-It blazed the trail for our company in the college bowl landscape. So when we picked this game up, we had a lot of conversations with them to pick their brains and learn, understand the landscape, understand what works, what doesn’t, what they’ve learned along the way…The same Weber Shandwick team that helps us create our program also connects to the Cheez-It team…we had the right teams collaborating, and it worked out wonderfully.

We’re talking about how we can do even more of that when we come back in 2024.

Do you feel like you set the bar pretty high for next year?

We already have been riffing, and we have a lot of fantastic ideas. I won’t spill the beans on any of them, but I think the beautiful thing about this is it feels like there’s so many natural extensions from where we have entered the landscape. Yeah, it’s a high bar, but we have a team that loves a challenge.

Given how much affinity was created for this Pop-Tarts mascot in such a short period of time, can people expect to see it rise from the dead?

We will see. I think his popularity is undeniable, so stay tuned.

Was the edible mascot that came out of the toaster actually made of Pop-Tart? Or was it something else?

It was a very large-scale Pop-Tart, yes. It was not, like, a biscuit, or a pie, or something like that.

As a follow-up to that, how do you go about making a Pop-Tart that large and get it on the field?

We had a bakery in the area assist us. And very carefully, with a lot of people helping.

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