“Twist, lick, and dunk” is the marketing mantra of America’s iconic cookie, the Oreo. It’s also the manufacturer’s instructions for use for eating this sandwich cookie with a glass of milk.
The phrase also describes the challenges Kraft Foods faces in selling their extruded confection to consumers in Asia, where adapting the familiar favorite to local markets has put the loco in localization.
Oreos today are the world’s most popular cookie by far, with close to $2 billion in sales last year. Half those cookies were sold in China, where Oreos are known as 奥利奥, pronounced ào lì ào, meaning “profound happiness, profoundly”. But adapting the product to Chinese taste was much more complex than selecting an auspicious transliteration of the brand name.
For years, the cookie “was spectacularly underperforming” in China, according to Sanjay Khosla, Kraft’s president of developing markets. One problem: Kraft offered Chinese consumers the same type of Oreos that it sold in the U.S. “There was a belief that what was good for the U.S. was good for the world,” Khosla said.
But then Kraft asked Chinese cookie-eaters a question unthinkable to Americans raised on Oreos —What’s wrong with Oreos? Turns out Chinese consumers thought the extruded treats tasted funny, too sweet on the inside and too bitter on the outside, according to Lorna Davis, global biscuit chief at Kraft. So food scientists cooked up a Chinese cookie recipe and made the outside more chocolatey, and the inside cream less cloying. Sales began to take off.
Changing the taste of Oreos to suit local tastes marked the crossing of the brand identity Rubicon. With the die cast on localizing Oreo flavors, this most fundamental feature has proliferated in the 100 local markets where the cookie is sold. In China, it’s green tea ice cream flavor, Orange & Mango, And Raspberry & Blueberry, In Indonesia, it’s Chocolate & Peanut, and in Argentina, Banana and Dulce de Leche, among many others. This is the same approach taken by global candy giant Kit Kat in overseas markets.
So if you can change the flavor of a cookie and still call it an Oreo, why not change the look too? So Oreos now come as wafers and stick, both favored cookie forms in East Asia. But it’s all good, because it’s not the shape or the flavor that makes an Oreo, but the experience. Oreos are about context, according to Davis. Despite all the different shapes and tastes, all Oreos remain dunkable.
“In the early days people said there’s no way that Chinese would twist, lick, and dunk because that’s a strangely American habit.” But it turned out that a habit was easier to translate than taste. Kraft embarked on a dunking public education campaign featuring basketball giant Yao Ming, to huge success.
So while other global brands like McDonalds or Coke for have localized their marketing efforts to teach consumers to like their taste in order to participate in the brand experiences, Oreos have localized their taste to to encourage consumers to participate in a childlike (or childish) brand experience.
I should disclose that I am no dunker, either at home or on court. So this is one brand experience outside my experience, and makes me wonder how prevalent such bad table manners are among Oreo eaters.