The Urban Dictionary describes them as "the most delicious form of evil." In a rant viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, comedian Jim Gaffigan likens them to Pop Tarts filled with "nasty meat," best enjoyed if you are "drunk or heading home to a trailer."
Suffice it to say, the Hot Pocket has a bit of a quality-perception problem. But as the Nestle-owned brand turns 30, it's taking on the criticism with a major makeover and campaign touting better ingredients such as 100% angus beef, hickory ham, white-meat chicken and new crusts with baked-in flavors like garlic butter.
"We appreciate the press," said Brand Manager Kevin Holmes, alluding to the brand's well-established place in pop culture. "But we do feel like it's time for us to change the perceptions of quality for the brand."
Part of the relaunch involves injecting a more serious tone in advertising, at least initially. The familiar two-word "hot pockets" jingle has survived and the brand has not completely sworn off playful marketing like its recent ad featuring Snoop Dogg rapping about "Pocket Like It's Hot." But the first TV spot of the new campaign is marked by ingredient shots like slowly carved beef and crust drizzled with seasonings.
The brand has also tapped celebrity chef and Food Network personality Jeff Mauro as its new spokesperson. In a video that will be featured in digital advertising, Mr. Mauro will take viewers on a tour of a Nestle kitchen, showcasing how Hot Pockets are made.
It's not that Hot Pockets is facing a sales crisis -- consumers have been more than willing to keep scarfing them down even as health concerns about processed food have gained more attention in recent years. Sales for the core Hot Pockets variety were up 2.5% to $640.7 million in the 52 weeks ending June 16, outpacing the 1.9% growth in the hand-held frozen entrée category, according to IRI. But Hot Pockets did not want to get left behind as consumers put more of a premium on quality ingredients, Mr. Holmes said, noting that the brand has watched marketers ranging from Panera to McDonald's employ similar tactics.
The pocket format has served Hot Pockets well as consumers put more emphasis on convenience. But there is a downside: "Consumers just don't know what's inside a Hot Pocket because it's fully enrobed or fully encased by the bread," Mr. Holmes said. The brand hopes to solve that by emphasizing ingredients on packaging. For instance, a box of the pizza variety shows slices of whole pepperoni and mozzarella cheese beside a pocket that is cut in half. This is also the goal of the Mr. Mauro video, which Mr. Holmes said will "open those factory doors for the consumer" to show them exactly how Hot Pockets are made.
The brand will also reinforce its credentials as a hot sandwich. "A good way to become less mysterious to a consumer is by anchoring ourselves to something they really know," Mr. Holmes said. "We view a sandwich as meat, cheese, bread and sauce and that's what we have."
No one is going to confuse Hot Pockets with health food. The revamp resulted in a modest 1.5% reduction in calories and a 1.4% reduction of saturated fat on average across the Pocket lineup, according to Nestle. Cholesterol went down by a more significant 31.2% on average. The new version of the ham & cheese variety has 300 calories per serving, 5 grams of saturated fat and 15 mg. of cholesterol.
Mr. Holmes said the revamp was focused on improving the quality of the ingredients; Nestle will seek to improve the nutritional profile more next year.
But as it reaches middle age, the 30-year-old brand will not entirely abandon its fun side. Phase two of this year's campaign includes a partnership with Funny or Die that is still in development, Mr. Holmes said. As for Snoop? "We've kept the communication lines open," Mr. Holmes said. "We really hope and think that we can leverage him again in the future."
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