Hostess Cakes is on life support and people who can’t live without Twinkies or Ho-Hos are stockpiling the non-perishable snack cakes by the barrow load. Though the company may experience a deathbed resurrection, the beloved brand is clearly in bad shape.
The company, which recently emerged from bankruptcy protection, fell into a heated dispute with its main union and, as of last week, declared an impasse. Liquidation of the company would commence immediately, declared the suits.
By Monday afternoon, a federal judge ordered management and labor back to the negotiating table to iron out their differences. In the meantime, pundits left and right declared that the imminent death of Hostess is (on the left) the fault of greedy management hell-bent on looting the company or (on the right) the fault of grasping organized labor thugs who would rather kill a business and throw their members out of jobs than compromise.
It is true that management has behaved badly, giving themselves obscene raises and perks even as the company was spiraling downward. And while one of the Hostess unions made concessions, another refused and went on strike, which precipitated the liquidation filing.
But none of that is core to the real problems facing the company. The truth is, Hostess is nothing more than a nostalgia brand – a bunch of kitsch products that we buy for an occasional guilty pleasure or for mid-century theme parties (complete with Tiki torches and canned Spam on toothpicks). Originally conceived in the 1930s and popularized during broadcasts of the “The Howdy Doody Show” during the 1950s, Hostess products were the epitome of the ready-made food movement, right up there with TV dinners and fish sticks.
There is nothing healthy about them and, in truth, they’re not particularly tasty, but they harken back to a childhood when Hostess snack cakes were doled out to well-behaved kids who deserved a small reward. Times have changed.
Today’s parents do not dole out sweets as rewards the way they once did, and in any event prefer cookies over vaguely space age snack cakes that no one can quite explain (pink Sno-Balls anyone?). Hostess products have simply failed to keep up with the changing tastes of Americans. While equally old-timey brands such as McDonalds have managed to step back from an abyss by introducing products originally considered orthogonal to the brand’s promise (I mean, c’mon: salads and espresso? at McDonalds?), Hostess just kept making more of the same.
To be fair, they have tried a few things: there are the 100-calorie Twinkie Bites, for instance. But if you’re going to eat a snack cake, you’re not thinking of the calories; you’re just thinking about how delicious it should be. Which is why folks would much rather have a fresh-baked cupcake from the bakery counter at Lucky’s or even Costco than buy a whole box of something with a shelf life of about 100 years from Hostess.
Nostalgia is not enough to keep a brand alive. And while bad management and cranky unions can imperil an otherwise solid company, a dying product line will always lead to a company’s undoing. Tastes have changed. People have changed. Hostess did not.
There is no defense for that.