For Sale: baby peanut shells, never worn.

What do Groot and Baby Yoda have in common? They both think Baby Nut is a poser.

The Planters Baby Nut ad is an example of poor brand storytelling. The Baby Nut campaign undermines itself and the brand. It makes me not want to buy Planters nuts. More generally, this ad campaign violated a couple of basic brand storytelling principles, taking a risk and trying to make us care, only to roll everything back and strip out any emotional investment in the story, or the brand.

Just look at this smug asshole.

The idea that storytelling is a crucial part of the advertising and marketing space makes intuitive sense, but the details of the execution are where marketers and advertisers often fumble. They confuse the trappings of the story, the scenery, and the general shape of “story-ness” with the function. The forest of storytelling gets entirely overlooked for the trees, the tricks of storytelling.

Why stories are memorable

We remember stories better than facts. This is why survival knowledge has persisted in the form of myth, rather than dry but factual lists of poisonous berries and maps of water sources. This is also the reason why so many anti-Trump protesters are using Hary Potter references to frame their perceived contest of good vs. evil. Symbols, the packaged associations, and memories bound by a logical progression and emotional impact are better at getting remembered and shared.

What makes a story “stick” goes something like this: get attention, invite curiosity (engagement), and tell a compelling/relevant/timely story that delivers some sort of value to the audience. While there is no hard rule for what makes a story compelling and relevant, the “Hero’s Journey” is a good start as far as identifying plot. “Man Comes to Town” is another, if you take after the John Garnder almost-quote.

Besides the plot is something else, however, the pathos, as it were, the emotional appeal. Emotion drives memory. We remember things that make us feel something. Events that delight, frighten, arouse, and get our hearts racing are recorded in high fidelity.

In order to get emotional engagement, the audience needs to be invested. A reason why many iconic lead characters are bland is that they serve simply as a vehicle for us to experience their world through them. Luke is kind of a whiny annoyance, who faces a challenge, fails, transforms, and eventually overcomes. Han Solo is cool and dynamic, but not nearly as relatable as Luke. And, while much can be said about the sense of betrayal after “The Last Jedi” that may have kept the fans out of the theater, along with a laundry list of other reasons, maybe Solo as a standalone story is flawed by default by being unrelatable. The same goes for the Mary Sue-ness of Rey. It’s hard to get invested in super-people without a sense of vulnerability, fear, fragility, insecurity. There are no stakes. There is no fear, no potential for loss, and thus no excitement.

Brand storytelling is scary

Brand storytelling is difficult, often because brands are scared to rock the boat. Brands are run by business people, people who value their jobs, and their 401K balances. They are often risk-averse because rising through the management ranks of any multinational takes a lot of not screwing up. While an artist courts controversy and attention, and executive or manager tries to limit it. Bad news can be bad, bad publicity exists and getting fired for it can be a very real problem if you have mortgage and boat payments to make.

When planters killed its long-standing mascot, the world noticed. The emotional stakes have been raised. Step one was achieved, Planters had our attention. The social media messaging around the campaign had other brands engaging, curiosity (and step 2) were peaking. So far, so good.

But, while killing off the 104-year old fictional character is a big deal in a fictional way, Kobe Bryant’s death was a big deal in the real world way. All of a sudden a falling death could potentially be controversial. Scared of upsetting grieving Kobe fans, Planters stopped the pre-game Superbowl ads. The move got ink, and, tenuous as the connection with Kobe is, there was something to admire about the brand’s actions in the real world, a much better and more nuanced story of a brand showing taste and restraint in the face of what to many is a national tragedy.

The show of restraint didn’t last long, however. The actual Superbowl ad still played. It features mascots of other brands remembering Mr. Peanut. The Kool-Aid man sheds a tear. From behind the clouds comes the sun, and the unholy abomination of 3D garbage, Baby Nut, emerges from the grave, speaking, wide-eyed, as if nothing has happened.

And then, of course, the social media presence of saturated, saccharine baby-talk that insults the intelligence of anyone old enough to have $5 to buy a jar of peanuts.

HA HA, Get IT? It has the hiccups! Zomg, so cute and funny! Buy My Merch, Logang 4 lyfe, amirite fellow zoomers? Please like me, everyone, please!?

If the character pattern seems familiar, it’s because it is, and likely the result of the following logic:

  • Hey, ‘member Groot and how popular baby Groot was?
  • Hey, ‘member Baby Yoda and how much social media attention he got and the meeeemes?

via GIPHY

PLZ no bulli

A lot of digital ink has been spilled about why Baby Nut is annoying. Ad people don’t like it, twitter people don’t like it, reddit people don’t like it. Though any publicity is good publicity, I guess, I find it difficult to see this having a significant impact on peanut sales.

While the criticism of the idea and execution of this campaign can be debated and criticized, what bothers me is the sloppy, milquetoast storytelling that went along with the campaign. It was so… bland, pandering, and ultimately meaningless, that I think it has the potential to actively damage the brand. It’s as if Planters, in a bid to get attention, walked up to the mic at a wedding reception, clinked the glass with a knife until everyone went silent, and then released a raucous, thundering fart.

What could have been

The killing off of a 104-year-old mascot was a big deal, it got attention, and it raised the stakes. There was the potential to do something lasting. From a storytelling perspective, there was almost a duty to live up to the stakes that were raised. Planters could have given Mr. Peanut a thoughtful retirement, pushing forward with a rebrand appropriate for a new age, announcing some bold and at least ballsy direction for the brand. You know, like VW did with the beetle.

Instead, all the stakes, all the investment, and attention that people who have not thought of Planters or Mr. Peanut for decades were now paying, all of that was undercut, dismissed, wasted.

Baby Nut is disappointing In the same way that the Instagram egg was kind of disappointing, except without any redeeming qualities of catharsis, transformation, or even empathy to the audience. The egg ad was well-executed (eggsecuted?) and appropriate for the medium it was addressing, carrying a message that had value, or, at least, was difficult to criticize. It built anticipation and then used it to do something outside of itself. The egg was a good piece of storytelling because it reminding you about something that matters to you. In other words, it didn’t try to be the hero, the wisdom of not sacrificing your health for Insta likes was inside you all along. Even if the stunt seemed a little lame and a little trite, it was hard to judge it too harshly. The egg had good intentions for you, after all.

Baby Nut, on the other hand, is about nothing but the Planters brand. It is a self-serving, shrill cuteness that helps no one and does nothing. What’s worse, the stakes that the campaign raised, and then inadvertently connected said stakes with Kobe. Sure, that wasn’t the intent, but the fact that Planters thought to pause the campaign made the connection salient, real. Now, after trying to show sensitivity, tact, and integrity, the brand ran the ad that undercuts all of the emotional investment, inevitably undercutting their effort to be sensitive, thoughtful, respectful. It’s a typical half-assed attempt of “having it all” that plagues creative worked that’s designed by committee.

  • “Oh, we should be sensitive to Kobe”
  • “Oh, but we shouldn’t waste the $5.6 million we paid for the Superbowl airtime either”
  • “Oh, but it’s cuuute, everyone loves cuuute baby-talking anthropomorphic abominations!”

Imagine the real-world respect that Planters could have achieved if they just committed. If they put their money where their pretense at integrity was, and pull the Baby Nut ad altogether.

Imagine the uproar, curiosity, social media traction if, instead of following through with the ad, they instead displayed a black screen with the caption: “We decided pulled an ad that featured a funeral scene out of respect and sensitivity for the tragedy that befell Kobe Bryant, his family, and the millions of people in whom he inspired admiration and respect. RIP.”

Imagine just that. 30 seconds of that screen. Silence. In the middle of Superbowl 2020. Fuck the $5.6 million, some things are more important than money. Imagine how many views would the ad ACTUALLY get if Planters did something like this? Planters would become a cultural icon, people would write songs about the nut. Hell, Baby Nut would become a symbol of hope. Think of the memes that people would make, for free, of Mr. Peanut wearing a Kobe Jersey, of Mr. Peanut and Kobe in heaven. After Superbowl Planters would announce a Kobe Bryant memorial scholarship designed to help at-risk youth stay in school, out of drugs, and away from gangs.

Would there be people accusing Planters of trying to benefit from a tragedy? Of course there would be. But, on the balance, the amount of attention, awareness, loyalty – all the important ROI metrics would be ridiculous.

From a storytelling perspective, rising above an ad campaign and sacrificing something to preserve integrity is what makes brands. The meta-narrative of Planters would become the story of Superbowl 2020. This story would be authentic, human, memorable.

Instead, we have Baby Nut, an annoying, ultimately self-defeating ad that will be forgotten quickly. The campaign is bland, a derivative of a derivative, like a wet, exhausted tea bag after the fourth steeping. I would not be at all surprised that not only will it be forgotten about quickly, but that the brand itself will deteriorate. It may very well be that this tweet was prescient, predicting a self-imposed demise of a brand.

Stories matter when they are about something, where the stakes are meaningful, where change and sacrifice and courage matter. To create a sense of loss and then retcon it away is a cynical, pointless approach to storytelling. It’s a waste of time.