'I'm famous and this is a commercial': Ice-T tells it like it is in protein bar ad

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With a quirky new ad campaign, protein bar marketer RXBar is putting a new spin on a line that's been part of its mission since the beginning: No B.S.

The phrase was on labels the Chicago-based marketer stuck on by hand, featuring other wording such as "As prescribed by nature," when it started out selling the chewy bars directly to gyms. And, yes, CEO Peter Rahal admits he "fired" his mom (she wasn't actually being paid) because she didn't put the labels on just right.

Fast-forward a few years, and the bars, made with main ingredients including egg whites, nuts and dates, were so hot that Kellogg Co. last fall bought the company for about $600 million in a deal that signaled how seriously "Big Food" is paying attention to more nimble startups.

"We're in the big leagues now," says Rahal, sitting in a conference room at the headquarters his company moved into last spring. The company, for now, still has the name Chicago Bar Co. But it's best known as its product name, RXBar.

With sales on track to double this year, Rahal says, and as distribution has increased, the time seems right for its biggest ever marketing push. The line now includes nut butter and bars for kids, but, for now, the focus in the ads remains on the flagship bars. RXBar executives say they've maintained their freedom since Kellogg bought the company, even though the cereal giant -- which scooped up RXBar when its annual sales were hovering around $120 million -- keeps a distant eye on things.

Clearly, RXBar's marketing department is calling its own shots. Most Kellogg brands wouldn't center a campaign around the words "No B.S." appearing on screens and some sarcastic lines being uttered by rapper and actor Ice-T. In one spot, his only line is "Hi, I'm famous, and this is a commercial."

He's not the most likely choice, perhaps. And, of course, that's the point.

"He's such an unconventional voice in the space," says Charlie Hart, whose title at RXBar is director of masterbrand.

Plus, the rapper/actor/producer, who appears in many, but not all, of RXBar's new ads, may help the brand appeal to a broad range of potential customers. He's recognizable to those who recall raps from the 1980s and 1990s and those who recognize him as Fin Tutuola from "Law & Order: SVU" on NBC and in seemingly constant cable reruns.

'Rat race'

In five years, RXBar has gone from a protein bar concocted in a kitchen to appeal to CrossFit devotees to gaining shelf space at retailers such as Trader Joe's, Walmart and Whole Foods, along with doing steady sales sales online through its own site and others including Amazon.

Rahal says he feels like "there's a rat race going on" among the smaller food makers eager to win over shoppers with better-for-you items, while the bigger manufacturers have been a bit slower to make their own similar products in ways that appeal to today's changing tastes. Instead, many have started incubators and investment arms to find the right products. After all, Kellogg makes plenty of its own better-for-you snack bars, but paid a pretty sum to buy RXBar. And weeks after that deal was announced, Mars grabbed a minority stake in Kind, one of RXBar's competitors.

As Rahal says, "RXBar is a dumbass idea." The product's premise is "so aggressively simple," he says that's exactly why it isn't the kind of thing a big food maker's R&D lab would come up with.

RXBar advertising.
RXBar advertising. Credit: RXBar

In 2015, RXBar updated to sleeker, often brighter labels that highlight the main ingredients in the bars. The new packaging was featured in a TV spot created in-house that ran from November through April, according to iSpot. It's also been seen in plenty of influencer posts, which has helped the company immensely, Rahal and Hart say.

Now, RXBar is running a series of ads from creative agency, Wieden & Kennedy Portland. Media is still done in-house. The ad plans include podcasts, out-of-home in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, banners, search, social media and upcoming sponsored content with Reddit and Uproxx.

The brand's new office has the feel of a booming startup in some ways, with indoor and outdoor space for meetings, lounging (and the occasional yoga class), plenty of chilled LaCroix on hand and, of course, lots of RXBars. And since it's owned by Kellogg, there's plenty of cereal in the breakrooms.

RXBar's milestones are easy to spot in the building. The chair Rahal used to sit in, a relic of a dining set with a somewhat uncomfortable wooden back, made the move to the modern space. And while Rahal sports a pair of Nobull training high-tops with the RXBar logo, others who were given their own pairs last year don't really wear them, he says.

RXBar advertising.
RXBar advertising. Credit: RXBar

Rahal and Hart want the ads to stand out from the more traditional spots for protein snacks.

Hart says he doesn't want RXBar to rely on common snack cues, like visions of almonds and chocolate being thrown together. To be clear, that in-house ad that aired for a few months did feature some ingredients including apples, berries, chocolate, eggs and nuts on display.

But the new ads are focused more on the brand itself, even if the name isn't uttered in some of them. That packaging is the cue he wants people to recall.

Ice-T shot a number of ads in which the phrase "No B.S." appears in large letters on the screen, next to an RXBar package "door" he pops out of. In one spot, he mentions the product but isn't exactly the most convincing spokesman. Which, of course, is kind of the point.

An online ad starts, as the TV spots do, with a squeaky door sound, followed by Ice-T saying what many people think when they watch quick online ads: "This really wasn't worth turning your sound on for."

Kellogg has been the kind of parent that keeps its distance, Rahal says. Still, he wants to make sure the big food maker over in Michigan knows what's up. In July, Rahal texted one of the ads to Kellogg CEO Steve Cahillane.

"I love it!!!" Cahillane replied.

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