By Diana Pearl
Originally appeared in Adweek.
Mr. Peanut was an undisputed star of this year’s Super Bowl, reemerging after he met his end in Planters’ pregame spot that saw the iconic legume meet his end after the explosion of his famed nutmobile, following an accident that saw him swerve it off a cliff.
The resurrection of Mr. Peanut may bring to mind the life and death of another famous character: Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow. At first blush, the banished solider turned hero in a medieval alternate universe doesn’t seem to have much in common with the dapper legume who sports a monocle and a top hat. But in fact, it was Snow’s storyline that helped inspire Mr. Peanut’s Super Bowl saga, according to Samantha Hess, the brand manager for Planters.
“We borrowed a page from pop culture, thinking about storylines of a Jon Snow,” Hess told Adweek the day after the Super Bowl. “There is this renewed appreciation for these fictional characters after their death, and then they come back with a renewed sense of purpose to what they’re doing, which helps to set up something bigger and a little bit different.”
And Mr. Peanut is indeed embracing something different. In the Super Bowl spot, titled “Tribute,” Mr. Peanut was reborn as #BabyNut, “a little legume who carries with him the spirit and wisdom of Mr. Peanut,” according to Hess.
The idea for Mr. Peanut’s next chapter was the brainchild of VaynerMedia, the agency behind the campaign. Hess said Planters’ ultimate goal going into the Big Game was to make the company “one of the most talked about brands on Super Bowl”—and this campaign certainly delivered.
But it did so with the brand undertaking a substantial risk. After all, Mr. Peanut is perhaps one of the world’s best known brand ambassadors. First introduced in 1916 (the year before the United States entered World War I, to put that number in perspective), Planters’ mascot has been a ubiquitous sight in advertisements, on peanut cans and more since then.
“Mr. Peanut is one of the best known icons in advertising,” said Hess. “But he also has been along for quite some time and isn’t necessarily one of the most relevant and contemporary out there.”
It was that thinking that led Planters to be open to the idea of killing off—and bringing back to life—its beloved mascot. From the moment that VaynerMedia pitched the idea to the Planters team, Hess said, the idea “gave us all goosebumps.”
“It was a unanimous vote at the end that this was the best of the ideas,” she said. “It wasn’t just about Mr. Peanut dying to die. In his coming back, it enabled us to set the stage for something new and exciting for the brand.”
Planters’ Super Bowl campaign gave the brand a chance to breathe new life into Mr. Peanut—literally. It kicked off with a pregame ad, called “Road Trip,” that saw Mr. Peanut’s now famous death, after his nutmobile swerved off the side of a cliff.
The campaign was an instant success—#RIPeanut was trending on Twitter within minutes, Mr. Peanut’s death made an appearance in two New Yorker cartoons and even got a shoutout in Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment. Hess said that the brand was inundated with a slew of calls and messages from people who were sad to see the death of Mr. Peanut.
“It was so amazing to see out in the world, how many other people truly do have that emotional connection and tied to Mr. Peanut and the brand in some fashion,” she said. “This was a reminder for them that hadn’t really existed prior to this point.”
But that momentum came to a screeching halt on Jan. 26, when news hit that basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, along with seven others, died in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles. Planters paused all paid activity as part of the campaign, but said it would still air its final spot on Super Bowl Sunday, which was set to showcase Mr. Peanut’s funeral.
“The team that certainly wanted to be very respectful to the real world tragedy and felt we took their appropriate and right actions in pausing everything from the moment we were aware up until the Super Bowl,” Hess said. “After that thoughtful consideration and conversation, knowing that our story arc had an uplifting and lighthearted end to it, we felt like it was appropriate to move forward with still airing the spot itself.”
In that promised funeral spot, we see Snipes, Walsh, Mr. Clean, the Kool-Aid Man and other guests gathered around Mr. Peanut’s tombstone. (To explain their presence, Hess said: “It makes sense that, when you live to be 104, you make a lot if interesting friends along the way.”) During Snipes’ eulogy, the Kool-Aid Man sheds a tear that falls on the cemetery plot, immediately sprouting a plant that reveals a baby version of Mr. Peanut, which the brand dubbed #BabyNut.
For any brand, killing off your mascot is a risk. It’s even more of one when said mascot is as beloved and well-known as the 104-year-old Mr. Peanut. And though the brand didn’t quite replicate its earlier virality, #BabyNut still became one of the most talked-about characters of the Big Game. According to TVision Insights, the Planters ad caught the third most attention of any spot in the game.
“We wanted people to fall in love with Baby Nut,” said Hess.
People on social media couldn’t help but compare the adorable, big-eyed little nut to another miniature of a popular character: Baby Yoda. However, Hess said that the coincidence is purely that—the Planters and VaynerMedia teams have been working on the idea for Baby Nut since last summer, months before Baby Yoda’s debut. In fact, she said that seeing the public’s reaction to Baby Yoda made Planters even more confident in its decision to unveil Baby Nut at the Big Game.
Hess said that the brand is “overwhelmingly proud” of the campaign, and feels it accomplished its two main objectives: bringing Mr. Peanut to the forefront of culture once again and giving the brand a new chapter to play with in its marketing going forward.
In that case, was the risk worth it? In Planters’ opinion, yes. And it may be a lesson to marketers going forward—big moves get big attention.
“You have to take risks to break through,” said Brian Tierney, CEO of Brian Communications. “If you always play on the safer side, you’re just not going to get noticed.”