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Brand Strategy Brand Partnerships Wunderman Thompson

Inside the viral Heinz x Absolut collab that sent pasta sauce sales soaring

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By Hannah Bowler, Senior reporter

May 31, 2023 | 7 min read

Shortly before April Fools, Heinz and Absolut revealed an unlikely collaboration that left some marketing journalists thinking they were being pranked. Two months on and 500m impressions later, sales of Heinz pasta sauces are up more than 50%.

Heinz and Absolut's limited run of vodka pasta sauces

Heinz and Absolut’s limited run of vodka pasta sauces / Heinz

In early 2022, Heinz launched its first-ever range of pasta sauces with the Wunderman Thompson-created campaign ‘Ridiculously late, ridiculously good’.

Caio Fontenele, the Heinz director of new ventures who is behind the pasta sauces, tells The Drum he was looking for ways to accelerate awareness of the range in the UK. “We were getting traction and we said, ‘OK, what’s next?’ We need to do something that would raise awareness faster."

The result was a partnership between Heinz and Absolut for a run of sauces inspired by the social media-hyped penne alla vodka.

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The vodka sauce campaign was a viral success, earning 500m impressions on social media and selling out within days, even seeing jars ending up on eBay asking for 10 times the RRP.

The product was always intended to have a limited run to drive awareness and never intended to be a permanent part of the Heinz pasta sauce range.

In the two months after launch, sales of the pasta sauce range have increased 52% and retail distribution has grown now holding a 24% share in Waitrose.

So why vodka pasta sauce?

Fontenele’s innovation team did some social listening to find out what pasta recipes were trending on social media and one of them was vodka pasta which gained virality in 2020 after model Gigi Hadid cooked it. While it’s an established pasta flavor outside the UK, Brits hadn’t quite gotten a taste for it yet.

Fontenele’s team was already doing some social listening to inspire product innovation before the Absolut collaboration, but the success of the campaign has given the strategy strength. Chief client officer at Wunderman Thompson Spain, Jose Maria Piera tells The Drum: “If you’re wanting to be part of the culture, you must be you must be aware of the culture.”

Acknowledging its skills lie with tomatoes and not vodka Heinz went back to Wunderman Thompson Spain to ask them for help. For the agency, only one name came to mind. “As you can imagine, as advertisers, all of us have the Absolut book behind us,” says Maria Piera. “It’s one of the myths and one of the icons in advertising. Immediately the answer came to us, it has to be Absolut.”

Being late to the established pasta sauce category, the challenge for Heinz was harder so it needed to be disruptive. “Until the moment that Heinz arrived in this category it was all about private labels and some brands doing Italian and it’s quite predictable and quite boring,” says Maria Piera.

The agency’s executive creative director Paco Badia was then tasked with executing the collaboration. He tells us: “It was super clear that we had to keep the heritage and iconicity of Absolut Vodka but of course bring the excitement to the pasta category that we wanted to build through Heinz.” The artwork for the ads placed the sauce within the outlines of Absolut bottles and blended the typography and colors of the two brands within the product packaging.

Heinz vodka pasta sauce

Badia says consumers are used to seeing brand partnerships and some make sense and others less so. He claims that partnerships resonate better when they can go beyond a campaign and to a physical product consumers can get their hands on. “Because it’s not about having these ideas that can be surprising can be super creative but it’s about making them possible. We have ideas as a creative agency but at this point, it was about making it possible.”

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So, what’s next for the vodka pasta sauce?

The trio hints that the product might be rolled out beyond the UK. “There is the clear intention from us and Absolut to maybe bring this to other countries right to where of course it makes sense,” says Fontenele.

Maria Piera adds that the agency is now under pressure to replicate the success of the collaboration, concluding: “When you come from a big success what comes next is very demanding for the agency. It’s very exciting on the one on the on the other hand is also very demanding.”

Heinz unifies all regions under one creative strategy for the first time in its 150 years. Read our interview with the brand.

Brand Strategy Brand Partnerships Wunderman Thompson

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