Hula Hoops has established itself as the brand leader in the snack-food market – how it got there is a text-book example of an integrated promotional strategy.

It has been a text-book example, the much-lauded, much-awarded Hula Hoops promotion has not only scooped seven industry awards, it has also been instrumental in bringing the product value up to 100m, making it the brand leader in the snacks market.

Significant sales increases and a well-known “Oi…no” catchphrase, prompt the question, “why has the campaign been so successful?”

The secret, according to KP Snacks marketing controller Jude Bridge has been a clearly defined, integrated promotional strategy, that could only be formulated once the essence of the product had been determined.

A definition of Hula Hoops’ appeal was not easy. In late 1993, after years of research, KP holed up with its agency Publicis and sales promotion agency Billington Cartmell on a number of brainstorming awaydays to explore what this essence was.

“A lot of research came up with the fact that all the benefits stemmed from the shape,” says Stephen Meade, group account director of Publicis. “If you took the shape away you actually destroyed the essence of the brand, the ability to crunch the snack or the play value (putting the Hoops on your fingers). We planned everything on the basis that you can’t change the shape and that became the strategic focus.”

In addition to shape, there was a need to define the market. Before the relaunch, KP had been less than single-minded in its approach, communicating to diffuse targets. “The brand was losing a bit of saliency,” says Bridge. “In the past, it was bought by mums and enjoyed by kids but not necessarily asked for by them. What we were trying to engender was self-purchase or pester power – kids asking mums specifically for hoops.” On this basis, the focus was clarified and opinion-forming 14 to 16-year-olds became the target group.

The creative work followed on from the shape and focus results but the “Eureka” moment came when Billington Cartmell put forward the idea that someone could steal the hole from the Hula Hoop.

The first “someone’s stolen-the-holes” campaign, launched in May 1995, generated incremental sales of 30 per cent and the second shape-based initiative, involving aberrant square Hoops, was launched in February this year. This was backed by TV ads featuring Harry Enfield’s Self Righteous Brothers Frank and George Doberman (Enfield and Paul Whitehouse). The ads show Frank venting his spleen on celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Damon Albarn for even daring to think they can change the shape of the Hula Hoop.

While commentators criticised KP for its association with two such “in-yer-face” and ostensibly negative characters, the Dobermans struck a chord and this phase of the campaign generated sales increases of more than 30 per cent. The third phase of the 18-month campaign featuring twisted hoops is now underway and looks likely to better previous sales increases. Hula Hoops now has a 15 per cent value share of the snacks market (Nielsen Scantrack August 31) which underlines the long-term benefits of the strategic promotion.

Non-strategic sales promotion, used for short-term volume uplift, has become a thing of the past, according to Ian Billington, managing partner of Billington Cartmell and the originator of the hole-less Hoop. A successful promotional strategy, he says, must steer away from inconsistency and the Hula Hoops promotion is evidence of the effectiveness of the enduring theme.

Long-term support is a trend to be noted among many big brand marketers: they reason that if a promotion is not good enough to advertise, then it probably is not good enough to run on a pack of a major brand. What appears to be happening is that sales promotion is now, in Billington’s terms, “determining, demanding and deserving national TV support in order to meet sales objectives”.

The idea, according to Meade, is to make promotional ads as “enjoyable, engaging and involving as theme ads. In a market where competition is increasingly fierce and where promotions are becoming more numerous, what we have done is find a way of playing that game. We have turned the situation to our advantage”.

Blurred lines between the thematic and the promotional are a hallmark of the Hula Hoops campaign. The “Oi…no” ads hint at big promotional prizes, details of which are given on individual Hula Hoops packets. Below-the-line promotion was generated apparently effortlessly on the back of the ads, with a front-page splash in The Sun and interview slots on the Big Breakfast with 100,000 prize winner 15-year-old Timothy Belcher (who perfectly matched the target group). Use of figures such as Kylie and Naomi inevitably captured interest from the press and controversy over who had won a 100,000 prize in the second phase won several more column inches in The Sun.

The integrated approach, involving national promotional/thematic ads and embracing all aspects of the marketing mix, has compounded the success of the brand. Once the proposition had been defined as shape, integration was relatively straightforward. “It is the simplicity of this which makes everything else fall into line,” says Bridge. “You brief everything around that: promotions, support, packaging. Once you’ve done that you really maximise the product proposition.”

What next for Hula Hoops?

The shape theme will be around, if not forever, for a pretty long time. Billington insists that this is something consumers want to come back to again and again.

He denies that there is a danger of shape branding becoming worn out the more consumers see it. “We live and breathe it, but the consumer is much more passive. There is no evidence that the campaign has run out. The challenge has been to come back each time with something fresh and new.”

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