Case Study: ConAgra's Half-Baked Marketing Idea

Elliot Kort

Category: Strategy


You’ve seen the following commercial a thousand times: Unassuming diners at Chic Restaurant comment on how much they love the food before being told what they just ate did not come out of Chic Restaurant’s kitchen. It’s actually, gasp, from [Insert Lowly, Unexpected Food Provider Here]. Not [Insert Lowly, Unexpected Food Provider Here]! Anything but [Insert Lowly, Unexpected Food Provider Here]!! You get the point. We’re supposed to see that we’d enjoy this humble pasta or pizza if only we’d shelve our prejudices.

ConAgra Foods, however, did not follow the script. And in doing so, they set themselves up for a whole lot of PR hurt. The New York Times reports:

In August, food bloggers and mom bloggers in New York were invited to dine at an underground restaurant in a West Village brownstone run, apparently, by George Duran, the chef hosts the “Ultimate Cake Off” on TLC.

Sotto Terra, the invitation said, was “an intimate Italian restaurant” where attendees would enjoy a “delicious four-course meal,” Mr. Duran’s “one-of-a-kind sangria,” and learn about food trends from a food industry analyst, Phil Lempert. The invitation continued that upon confirming — for one of five evenings beginning Aug. 23 — bloggers would receive an extra pair of tickets as a prize for readers and that the dinner would include “an unexpected surprise.”

The surprise: rather than being prepared by the chef, the lasagna they were served was Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna by Marie Callender’s, a frozen line from ConAgra Foods. Hidden cameras at the dinners, which were orchestrated by the Ketchum public relations unit of the Omnicom Group, captured reactions to the lasagna and to the dessert, Razzleberry Pie, also from Marie Callender’s.

The problem’s right there in the first sentence. “Food bloggers and mom bloggers were invited…” ConAgra did not invite average people off the street to try the food. It invited bloggers like Suzanne Chan of Mom Confessionals, Lon Binder of Food Mayhem and others who use their free time to cultivate a certain expertise on their chosen topic. In this instance, cuisine and parenting.

ConAgra’s goal here was two-fold: 1) catch food and mom bloggers unknowingly enjoying their lasagna and 2) inspire said bloggers to return to their laptops and praise Marie Callender’s products online.

ConAgra missed the mark here by underestimating what blogging means to people who actually blog. There’s a lot of pride and identity wrapped up in what people choose to blog about. As the Times notes, many bloggers view themselves as fact-finding journalists in a specific field. The entire event, devised by the Ketchum public relations agency, is a prime example of underestimating one’s audience. Bloggers became infuriated that, caught up in the ruse, they inadvertently misled their readers.

Lots of people in our line of work see blogger outreach and engagement as a simple process. But as Deborah Silverman of the Public Relations Society of America points out, “…the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for public relations practitioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.” At NJI Media, we help our clients combine public relations and social media to connect with consumers in an effective manner. We create online ad campaigns that cater to the kinds of communities bloggers represent.

Most importantly, we tell our clients that engaging with bloggers means learning about their communities, priorities, goals and audiences. It means understanding – and accepting – that bloggers might not like what they’re selling. And even if they do enjoy it, bloggers might not wish to endorse (or even discuss) any product, organization or initiative on their blog.

We would have suggested ConAgra come to bloggers from a place of respect, asking them (openly and honestly) to come try its new food offerings. Doing that avoids all the controversy. Sure, many who object to high-sodium foods would have declined. Others may not have been interested in what ConAgra had to offer. But of those who chose to give the food a chance anyhow, knowing everything about it, the response could have been positive. Instead, the story became about the event, not the food. And ConAgra’s message got lost in the middle.


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