Feature: The cookie advertising mogul

By T.K.MALOY, UPI Deputy Business Editor  |  July 21, 2003 at 4:07 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 21 (UPI) -- He's been dubbed as the "Fortune Cookie Advertising Mogul," but now Buzzmarketing CEO Mark Hughes wants to expand the concept of food-delivered advertising into the Hispanic equivalent of the fortune cookie -- Tokitos.

His goal?

To have Tokitos-delivered advertising become nothing less than a staple of America's 80,000 Mexican food restaurants.

A Tokito can be described as a sweet and crunchy dessert cookie, with a hint of cinnamon. About three inches long, it is shaped like a small taco.

For Tex-Mex food aficionados, it should be noted that Tokitos are not to be confused with the similar sounding Taquitos, which are an appetizer, usually with a meat or seafood filling wrapped in a small tortilla.

On the fortune cookie front, Buzzmarketing has somewhat cornered the market for advertising. Hughes has long-term contracts with five of the top fortune cookie bakeries in the United States who collectively manufacture 7 million cookies weekly.

With this technique, Hughes has been attempting to achieve a culinary intersection between cookie and commerce. For example, a Buzzmarketing fortune cookie with a proverb reading "Patience is the best remedy for every trouble" may also read on the back "Win a Job to Die For at Monster.com".

The 38-year-old Hughes said that he first began to concoct the idea of fortune cookie advertising while he was Vice President of Marketing at the Internet discount shopping site Half.com, which was later sold for $300 million to eBay Inc., the huge Net auction site. At the time, Hughes was tasked with doing a lot of marketing, but with little money.

Hughes said "its simple math -- how many direct mail pieces get delivered and never opened? I was searching for a one-to-one ratio."

According to Hughes, with fortune cookies he found something close to this ratio.

After the sale of Half.com to eBay, Hughes struck out on his own, and began speaking with a number of fortune cookie manufactures in order to full implement his idea.

Ultimately the idea is a simple one -- fortune cookie marketing gets people talking.

According to recent research by Buzzmarketing, 96 percent of people read their fortunes, and 67 percent of people read them aloud to their eating companions.

The demographic who are opening the fortune cookies are a gold-plated one: 18-to-34-year-olds who are big consumers of movies, alcoholic beverages, wireless telecom and consumer electronics, the Buzzmarketing CEO notes.

The word-of-mouth factor, Hughes said, is one of the most powerful methods of marketing "on the planet" if it can successfully be pulled off.

"My whole modus operandi is get through (to the consumer) by word-of-mouth," Hughes said.

The fortune cookie "is a great conversation prop, it gets people talking," he added. "This is what you want -- to get people talking about your brand."

It is this "buzz factor" that Hughes and other marketers have been striving for in the last half-decade, with the goal being a viral-like spread of interest in a product.

Among Buzzmarketing's clients are Showtime, which spread the word for its recently launched "Dead Like Me" television series using fortune cookies as the marketing medium.

For Hughes and his company Buzzmarketing, it would not be surprising to learn that Tokitos draw the same kind of attention as the fortune cookie in the same kind of social and entertainment setting.

According to Buzzmarketing, Tokitos can reach up to 2 million people per month, primarily in Texas and California.

"Word of mouth marketing is important in every market," Hughes said, "and the Hispanic market is a bit unique and interesting -- many have not formulated their brand preferences yet."

He said that the Hispanic market represents $380 billion worth of buying power nationwide per year.

Hughes added that the cost of media buys via such Spanish-language networks such as Unavision and Telemundo can prove prohibitively expensive for some and that marketing via food is a less expensive way to reach the Hispanic demographic.

Even so, Hispanic marketing experts note that there is a growing amount of advertising and marketing money being spent in this demographic sector.

Professor Arlene Dávila in her book "Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People" notes that Hispanic marketing is now a multibillion dollar industry, spread throughout Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New York, and every other center with a large concentration of Latina populations."

Hughes has high expectations for the power of Tokitos advertising, as there are currently 80,000 Mexican food restaurants in the U.S. alone, and growing. Similarly, just as the number of Mexican food restaurants is growing, the Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.

At question, is how to reach this growing group.

Hispanic Business magazine's special report "U.S. Hispanic Consumers in Transition said in its executive summary: "As marketers, political parties, corporations.... strive to appeal to the hearts and minds as well as the growing purchasing and political power of U.S. Hispanics in the years ahead, who knows what winning strategies will prevail in the public information marketplace."

For Hughes and Buzzmarketing clients, the way to reach this market is through Tokitos.

Buzzmarketing, located in Media, Pa. nearby to Philadelphia, bills itself as an "alternative media" marketing company which largely focuses on creating a "buzz" around any given client's product, Hughes said.

The Buzzmarketing CEO is also currently hard at work on a business marketing book called "Got Buzz: The Six Proven High Impact, Low-Cost Secrets of Breaking Out a Business." He described the book as "one part Tom Peters, one part Malcom Gladwell, and one part Charles Kuralt, taking the reader on a fast-paced, inside story of break-away growth through the six, proven secrets of buzz marketing."

Hugest added, "I've lived the world of traditional marketing as well as buzz marketing and the difference between the two is amazing. Most marketing pundits view buzz as random happenstance, but this book lays out a deliberate structure that can be followed by big brands and small start-ups alike."

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