King’s Hawaiian has become America’s best-selling brand of dinner roll over the past few decades, and that means the brand’s crucial season—fall and the winter holidays, with feasting on everyone’s minds—is upon us.
But the maker of the sweet and identifiably distinctive breads is approaching the season differently this year: as a filmmaker. The US debut of King’s Hawaiian’s family-fun animated film, The Legend of Hallowaiian, launches this week, and it represents the culmination of a five-year marketing overhaul under CMO Erick Dickens.
The film stars the voices of celebrities Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, Noah Schnapp from Stranger Things, and actress Vanessa Williams. It tells a story set in the Hawaiian Islands during a spooky Halloween evening featuring the release of a mythical monster that is reminiscent of the sci-fi horror in Netflix hit series Stranger Things.
And while characters aren’t eating King’s Hawaiian rolls, the brand’s new crown-based logo is suggested by the monster’s head. Of course, there’s also the brand’s sponsorship of the film, with events across the country, an online sweepstakes and movie-themed recipes.
“The movie comes into play because October was another one of those months where everyone was just sitting around waiting for Thanksgiving, on our side and the consumer side,” Dickens told brandchannel. “We wanted to make October more relevant for the brand.”
The movie was initially released on DirecTV and is now in a handful of theaters around the US, leading up to Halloween.
Dickens has helped drive a brand transformation since he came aboard five years ago. In addition to the movie, new logo and other major marketing moves, King’s Hawaiian has been broadening its product line with barbecue sauce and coffee.
brandchannel talked with Dickens about marketing America’s favorite sweet dinner roll.
Describe the evolution that you’ve engineered in King’s Hawaiian marketing.
When I came here, the company had never really done any broad external marketing. I wanted to help the business develop beyond where it was, which was mainly a holiday brand, with 40% of the volume sold in 3o days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was also very well known on the West Coast but not the East Coast.
My primary objective was to build the brand beyond its regional notoriety and disrupt the seasonality of the brand. One of the most effective ways to do that was mass advertising. We did our first mass TV commercials in 2014. We’ve done some live events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and we’ve also done ads during the Super Bowl and Oscars.
How’s that been working out for the brand?
The business has taken off quite a bit. We’ve improved in all the metrics we targeted, including the natural seasonality of the brand. The summer has become bigger than it ever was.
So how has that led King’s to go Hollywood?
A few years ago we initiated a shopper marketing program about the Legend of Hallowaiian, a backstory of characters that we could make recipes from using our breads. It was successful for us from a recipe standpoint but it wasn’t big enough to make an impact on the business at the scale we were hoping to.
So after seeing the backstory, I though it was worthy of a bigger platform. We live in Los Angeles and have access many Hollywood resources. So I met with a few writers and shared the thought with them. The thinking was: “Let’s just see if we can develop a story that we like and go from there”—whether a digital short to made-for-TV special or a full-length feature. The business model of the content led us to the full-length feature category, primarily because we had partners in London that were interested in selling the content globally.
With what they projected based on the Hawaii-theme and animation, we would earn back half the cost of creating this content. And they were the ones who introduced us to DirecTV. That deal really sealed it for us because having that distribution agreement in place before creating our first piece of content for the movie was highly valuable, and at the time I didn’t realize how rare that was.
How has the film worked out?
DirecTV is happy to date. There’s a protocol to how they release [viewership] results. We’re anxiously awaiting the results. It will go into some limited theaters before Halloween domestically, but internationally it’s not as tied to Halloween. The results we’re seeing so far from a business objective is beyond what we’d hoped in terms of generating incremental display activity, sales and retailer engagement with our brand.
Sales for October are ongoing and we don’t have the full picture yet but what we’ve seen is very encouraging. Ultimately, consumers are our end users, but we sell our product to retailers. All of that selling happened before October and we’ve seen significant increases in orders, and display activity for product this month unlike anything we’ve seen before.
What does this encourage you to do next? Full Hollywood with your own channel?
It’s successful enough that we have to think about what we do next. On the bread business side, the current movie still has years of opportunity. Even if we never made another movie, there’s DVD and Netflix and Amazon and other platforms for the movie. Networks could air the movie annually. But the movie has been successful enough to date to we’re thinking whether we should consider following that up in the next year or two.
It comes down to us trying new things to achieve business goals.We mitigated risks by partnering with the right people and securing what we felt was the right distribution for what we’re trying to achieve and now we’re in the midst of letting it play out.
Get more insights in our Q&A series.