Popcorn and Patriotism

It has become fashionable for food companies to link with charitable causes. Two noteworthy efforts are those of Starbucks' Ethos water project which provides children with access to clean water all over the world, and Newman’s Own, whose earnings benefit a slew of children’s causes. But just the other day, I came across a fledgling whose mission is to help the lives of veterans. It got my attention in an unusual way. At my daughter’s 10th grade parent dinner two weeks ago, I sampled some really good popcorn and the best version of cheese doodles I’ve ever had. Not quite Proust’s “madeleine moment,” the puffy, fluffy, cheddary bits stopped me in my tracks. “Wow!” I said, on the way to my first glass of malbec. An indulgent childhood memory had me begging my hosts, “Where did you get these?  They’re fabulous!”  I never expected the answer I got.

As an emergency room volunteer, I had just spent the morning talking to a young veteran who was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome prompted, no doubt, by the recent news that his best friend had shot himself. This was just two weeks after his army buddy went to his local VA hospital complaining of depression. He was sent home without a plan and came up with one himself.

My ER patient, a construction worker, had blacked out that morning under a load of heavy glass. He was shaken and decided to come in. We started to talk, he started to unload, and I started to understand what happens to our veterans when they come home.

Nothing. No transition, no financial assistance, no 12-step program about how to integrate into a world oblivious to the perils of your most recent life and blind to your wounds. “Sometimes, it’s worse than that,” said the handsome vet, probably in his late 30’s. “You are vilified by others who learn that you have killed in the name of honor and your country.”  “I risked my life in Afghanistan, I held a dying comrade in my arms, and then I volunteered again.”

So it was no small coincidence that I learned that the host of the party was, in fact, the creator of the Five Point Snacks meant to address the needs of my patient – financial support, awareness, respect, and job opportunities for veterans. My heart skipped a beat.

Advertising mogul Alan Blum, along with creative director, Charles Herbstreith, conjured up the idea -- five snack foods, each honoring one of the branches of the US Armed Forces. The hope? That America’s veterans will have better opportunities to  return to civilian life. Mr. Blum will give 11% of profits to organizations that support, care for and benefit veterans from all branches of the military. And who better than veterans to become the sales-staff-and-spokespeople for the Five Point Snacks.

Said Tiffany Taylor, the snack buyer at BJ’s headquarters who bought the entire product line for all BJ Warehouse stores, nationwide, within a week of the company’s inception, “This is far more than a great snack with a mission, it is a great mission with a snack.”

Alan Blum, whose brainchild this was, helped develop the game-changing ad slogan “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” along with major campaigns for Absolut Vodka and Air France. Perched on top of the movement to partner advertising and entertaining (err, product placement), he created brand integration models for shows such as The Apprentice.  Fixated on consumerism and its future, Mr. Blum believes brands today need to be as much about the purpose as the product itself.  The best example of this right now, he says, is Tom’s Shoes. Buy one pair and give one away to someone-in-need. “If all things are equal,” he says, “why not do something good?”

Within 24 hours of bagging their first products, Duane Reade ordered all five snacks for 240 stores in the tri-state area.  Gristede’s just bought it, as did the 189 BJ’s Wholesale Club stores.

During their co-packer search, Mr. Blum and associates tasted products from all over the country, sampling upwards of 200 different varieties to select the ones that would ultimately define the Five Pont Snacks brand. And while the snacks themselves are really delicious, as any great ad man knows, the heart of a brand is the naming and packaging of the message.

The line-up?  There are Major Murphy’s kettle-cooked potato chips, nutty-tasting Sailor Knots pretzels, upscale G.I. Crunches cheese twists, credible Flotilla tortilla chips, and superlative Airmen Popcorn. “Eat. Live. Give.,” is the slogan of Five Point Snacks.

Sounds like the future to me.