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Cheetos: Enabling Enthusiasts
How would you take a cheesy snack and create an emotional connection?

As Thanksgiving approached in the United States, Hot Cheetos began to trend on Twitter. If this surprises you, you have not been paying attention. A turkey covered in pulverized Hot Cheetos is right in line with the Cheetos brand.

When I learned Cheetos would be honoured as a 2019 Cult Brand Honouree, I was not at all surprised. Earlier last year at a marketing conference I heard about the many successful efforts to activate the Cheetos brand. The Cheetos Store, The Cheetos Museum, and the Cheetos-inspired pop-up restaurant The Spotted Cheetah gained millions in earned media impressions, and earned the praise of marketers around the world. But the biggest fan of these efforts and what made that success possible is the core Cheetos customer – their Enthusiast.

Step back and think about the product, the category, and the channel in which Cheetos competes. Step into the salty snack section at your grocery store. It’s not eight feet of shelf space; rather, it’s an entire 2-sided aisle of products with which to compete. Or, ask yourself how would you nurture a 70-year-old brand and make it as relevant to fit into an eight-year-old’s lunch box while also making it a must-have for a weekend tailgate party? How would you take a cheesy snack and create an emotional connection with customers so they don’t just buy Cheetos, but buy in to the brand and what it means?

One of the cult brand principle touted in our book “Fix, Break the Addictions That Are Killing Brands” is Co-Creation, an acknowledgement that true cult brands must have the courage and the humility to involve their customers in the ideation of products, services or customer experiences. Cheetos’ success story is a story of enabling hard core enthusiasts. The Cheetos team showed the bravery necessary to be bold and take chances with the brand, taking it into spaces “ordinary” customers did not think it could go.

Another cult brand principle is relatability. Brands need to feel human, not corporate. For over 30 years Chester Cheetah has been the personification of this bold approach, showing an enthusiasm for Cheetos in a humorous and irreverent way. He’s the spokesperson that keeps it fun for the kids and young at heart for the adults. Over the years, Chester has gone more and more noir, something that has not gone unnoticed. Chester’s heel turn came from the insight that the majority of Cheetos customers – and Cheetos enthusiasts – are not children. Adults were the audience Cheetos needed to connect with most.

This realization has led Cheetos to experiment in places where adults can interact with the brand in novel ways, knowing both brand and customer are “in on the joke” of taking a crunchy, cheetle-covered snack serious with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Understanding this opportunity to not take themselves too seriously and creating the space for Cheetos lovers to have fun with the brand while unapologetically enjoying the product has made Cheetos a remarkable cult brand.

Attendees at The Gathering will learn a lot about Cheetos from Frito-Lay SVP and CMO Jennifer Saenz in February, but I have already learned a lot just by studying their marketing playbook. I’ve learned the power of enabling your enthusiast customers and giving them the support they need to help make your brand a cult brand. I’ve learned having the courage to create spaces for your best customers to push the brand the way they see it can be rewarded. I’ve learned if even a low-involvement category like chips can contain a brand with such depth, range and ability to create such irrational enthusiasm, any category can look for ways to be bold and remarkable in the eyes of their core customers.

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Further Reading
The CULT of Customer Experience
FIX: A new prescription to cure disengaged customers, prospects or staff
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