Cheetos: Enabling Enthusiasts

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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 step with the Cheetos brand.

When I received word Cheetos would be honored as a 2019 Cult Gathering Honoree, I was not at all surprised. Earlier in the year at a marketing conference I heard about many of Cheetos’ successful efforts to activate their brand. The Cheetos Store, The Cheetos Museum, and the Cheetos-inspired pop-up restaurant The Spotted Cheetah gained millions in earned media coverage and earned the praise of marketers across North America and around the world. But the biggest fan of these efforts and what made that success possible is the core Cheetos customer – the 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, but an entire aisle of products with which to compete. How do you nurture a 70-year-old brand so that it fits into an eight-year-old’s lunch box while also making the list of must-haves for a weekend football tailgate party? How do you take a salty snack and create an emotional connection with customers? How do you get customers to not just buy Cheetos when staring at the litany of choices when shopping, but to buy in to the brand and what it means?

Our 5th principle touted in “Fix” and prevalent in Cult’s consulting engagements is “Involvement,” an acknowledgement that true cult brands must have the courage and the modesty to co-create with their customers, to let their customers lead while they enable. The story of Cheetos’ success at becoming a cult brand is a story of enabling enthusiasts. The Cheetos team showed the bravery necessary to be bold and take chances with the brand, taking into spaces their customers did not think it could go. 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 enthusiast – 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 will learn a lot about Cheetos from Frito-Lay SVP and CMO Jennifer Saenz at The Gathering in February, but I have already learned a lot. 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 salty snacks can contain a brand with such depth and range and ability to create such irrational enthusiasm, any category can look for ways to be bold and remarkable in the eyes of their customers, particularly their most enthusiastic customers. I’m looking forward to learning more in February at The Gathering.

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– Dan Ribolzi