If one were listing quintessential American comfort foods, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese would likely be near the top. So would ice cream.
And so Kraft Heinz's internal marketing team, known as The Kitchen, took a very modern approach to showcasing these iconic foods: a partnership with ice cream maker Van Leeuwen to create ice cream that looks and tastes like the product in the iconic blue box. Jess Vultaggio, Kraft Heinz VP and head of The Kitchen, explained what made the partnership work.
"When the idea came to combine these two classic comfort foods in a really fun, uplifting way, what was really great is ... hav[ing] a partner in Van Leeuwen, who are the experts in ice cream. Combine that with our R&D and culinary and sensory experts who are experts in the flavor and the experience that really triggers a uniquely Kraft Macaroni & Cheese taste and experience," Vultaggio said.
The bright orange ice cream — which quickly sold out when it was first made available last summer, and is currently on shelves at Walmart stores nationwide — is one of many unconventional product releases Kraft Heinz has done over the last few years. The CPG behemoth has also created Grey Poupon wine, an Oscar Meyer bologna-inspired face mask and a candy-flavored mix-in for Macaroni & Cheese. Vultaggio said these products are a mash up of new ideas, attention-grabbing marketing, consumer research and unconventional ways to showcase what consumers love about the iconic CPG products.
The internal marketing team is scaling up to become a nearly 150-person internal agency to combine creative, social strategy and production and brand strategy, Vultaggio said. Kraft Heinz also works with a network of external partners for its marketing. But these unconventional products are both marketing and something more.
During the initial sale of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese ice cream, the brand's social engagement performance surpassed internal expectations by 300%, Vultaggio said. Considering the made-for-social-media nature of the product, this wasn't necessarily a surprise — but they also rose 4% for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese itself.
"People who are aware of the product then say, 'OK, I'm gonna consider buying it,' and then, 'Oh, I actually did buy it and I'm now loyal to it,' " Vultaggio said. "You see measures on those actually switch and evolve in a positive way with the target consumer."
All challenger brands
The strategy shift that created the unconventional products is a part of a seismic change in Kraft Heinz's operations and plans for growth.
After revelations of massive losses and procurement mismanagement in 2019, Kraft Heinz brought in CEO Miguel Patricio. He changed a lot about the way Kraft Heinz does business, streamlining operations and organizing the company's well-known brands onto consumer-use-defined platforms. With the new platforms, the company planned a 30% increase in marketing spend, and a new focus on how consumers use and respond to its products.
At the same time that the new company strategy came in, there have been massive changes in how people get their information about brands. The old toolkit of a CPG company being able to drive the conversation by using its voice in a few large media channels no longer works, Vultaggio said. Kraft Heinz may have some of the most storied brands in the food business, but they're all competing for consumers' eyes and attention in social media feeds. Instead of just wanting their products to stand out on shelves, Kraft Heinz's messaging has to stand out among celebrity videos, funny memes and eye-catching tweets.
Kraft Heinz has also changed the way it looks at its brands, Vultaggio said. While they are iconic options in the food industry, the company now has the mindset that they're all challenger brands — a term for a smaller brand that is trying to disrupt an existing space. With so many more messages to disrupt in today's information-heavy society, Vultaggio said that "challenger" takes on a new definition, but the products are all still trying to earn their spot in the heart of today's consumer.
"We've spent the last year plus renovating — and by renovation, I mean basically stripping our brands down to their foundation, down to the studs, and finding out at their core what's their DNA and what's the value that they bring to consumers' lives, and then rebuilding a holistic experience around them based on that," Vultaggio said. "Once you know what your brand stands for and what's compelling about it to your target consumer, then we just sort of go and hunt in culture for things that we can do."
The product mashups, Vultaggio said, are new ways to communicate this. And because they're largely unconventional collaborations, they often stand out in a social media feed. It's hard not to stop scrolling and take another look at a picture of a woman wearing a bologna-inspired facial mask, or bright pink macaroni and cheese.
"As they're inquiring or being curious and clicking and learning more, you're able to deliver some of the truths that we know are going to be compelling to them, and build brand love, build product curiosity and trial," Vultaggio said.
Who thought of that?
The ideas for these products come from a variety of sources, Vultaggio said.
They come from looking at what consumers see as the true meaning of brands. In the case of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, it's comfort food. For Grey Poupon, it's affordable luxury. And for Oscar Mayer bologna, it's a sense of nostalgia and fun.
There's also tapping into social media and consumer behavior. Mayochup — Heinz's "Saucy Sauce" that blended mayonnaise and ketchup — came from consumers asking for it on social media, Vultaggio said. Heinz Dip & Crunch — a two-in-one package with hamburger dipping sauce and potato crunchers — is a newer product born from a TikTok craze. And consumers often mixed other flavors and food items into their Macaroni & Cheese, Vultaggio said. This behavior led to the pink candy Macaroni & Cheese, a pumpkin spice mix that debuted in Canada, and Flavor Boosts packages to add Kickin' Buffalo, Creamy Ranch and Zesty Pizza flavors to macaroni and cheese.
"It's another data point that helps the team understand that the idea of mixing things in, of doctoring the flavor is something our consumers are already doing, so is there an opportunity for us to help them? Pair up some flavors that we know are going to be excellent with our product and make it available through D-to-C [direct to consumer] to them?" Vultaggio said.
When the team comes up with an idea for an unconventional limited-time product, Kraft Heinz's R&D team works to create it, sometimes in conjunction with another manufacturer. Vultaggio said they all work to ensure a quality product, but they don't necessarily spend a lot of time evaluating business decisions like pricing, profit and loss, and manufacturing. There's only a limited run of these items, so the research on a wide launch isn't needed.
What is important, Vultaggio said, is ensuring that the products are more than just a quick flash in the pan. Granted, she said, they do make quite a splash. Consumer publications and morning TV show hosts love to talk about the unconventional mashups. Vultaggio said that "Today" show commentators Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager often talk about these products in the same way that consumers do. On segments where the duo is sampling the products, Vultaggio said, one of them tends to be excited about the experimental item and the other is hesitant.
However, care is taken to make the products themselves top quality. Van Leeuwen is known for its premium ice cream, and the Macaroni and Cheese pints meet that high standard, Vultaggio said. The Oscar Mayer bologna face masks were made in partnership with Korean skincare company Seoul Mamas, and were some of the best hydration masks available, she said.
"The execution of them is actually done with quality and care in mind, so it's something that delights the consumer," Vultaggio said. "It's not just a gag that, once you get below the surface, there's not much to it. I think that's been a real driver of why these things end up not just being like a quick flash in the pan, but become something that people actually engaged with, and say, 'I can't believe I actually loved that mask and want another one.' 'I can't believe that ice cream. Can you please make it widely available?' "
Vultaggio said Kraft Heinz also takes care to only do the kinds of projects and products that will actually say something to consumers. The option of taking shortcuts — partnering with trendy food, drink and apparel brands that target Gen Zers and younger consumers — is always available. Vultaggio said that while that could help a brand to quickly feel cool and relevant, there's no deep strategy behind it. And without truly thinking through what the product will mean to consumers, it may not reach its intended goal.
The goal — and the most important thing that Kraft Heinz gets out of these limited time product launches — is relevance, Vultaggio said. If Kraft Heinz is doing something fun with its products and making options that are more pertinent to consumers' lives, they're more relevant. And, Vultaggio said, that also plays out as sales, social media mentions and brand affinity grows.
"They're seeing that we are actively investing in building our brands and learning about our consumers, and knowing what makes them tick, and what makes our brands sing in their context," Vultaggio said. "There's so many metrics that flow from it, but relevance is something that I think we felt we've been losing — but it's really coming back."
This story has been updated to reflect Jess Vultaggio's latest title.