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Why Philadelphia Made a Cream Cheese 200x Hotter than Jalapeños


Rethink’s associate creative directors, Jordan Darnbrough and Nick Noh, and Philadelphia’s Keenan White discuss bringing the taste of hell to life in Toronto, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

Why Philadelphia Made a Cream Cheese 200x Hotter than Jalapeños

On Friday the 13th, the gates of hell opened in Toronto. And while there wasn’t a demon army in waiting, nor the streets did not crack due to the sheer heat of the underworld, the blazing spiciness of Philadelphia Cream Cheese’s ‘A Little Taste of Hell’ was enough to make even the fiercest spice-lovers repent their ways. Measuring in at 1,041,427 Scoville heat units (208 times hotter than jalapeños), the limited-time offering was made available via Uber Eats to anyone in ‘The Six’, all for the inexpensive (but very fitting) price of $6.66. 

Delivered in an ominous all-black kit featuring a waiver that warned against tears, and a pair of gloves for safe smearing, this departure from the brand’s traditionally-used ‘angelic’ marketing was designed by creative agency Rethink, and was accompanied by fiery graphics, as well as a heavy metal spot featuring footage of the foolhardy coughing, cussing and crying their way into spice-lover’s infamy. 

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Rethink associate creative directors Jordan Darnbrough and Nick Noh, and Philadelphia Cream Cheese senior brand manager Keenan White, to discuss how this ‘spicy’ campaign came to life, and why, as with all things, the devil truly is in the details. 

LBB> The super-spicy cream cheese for Friday the 13th is so fitting! What was the brief like, and why was moving away from Philadelphia’s ‘angelic’ branding the right approach for this campaign? 

Keenan> As a consumer-obsessed leader in the cream cheese category, PHILLY is always looking for new ways to approach trends and engage our fans with the brand’s unique, sensorial experience. We hear and see our consumers, and brief our teams to always do the same. Knowing millennials and gen z have a strong preference for spicy foods, we looked to get these spicy food connoisseurs fired up and open to a challenge by bringing them one of the spiciest cream cheeses in Canadian history through PHILLY’s ‘A Little Taste of Hell’. Ultimately, we view this activation as another way of showing how PHILLY is an irreplaceable experience, which is one of our core objectives as a brand. 

LBB> Was ‘A Little Taste of Hell’ the first idea you had, or were there other ideas under consideration? And what made this creative the best approach for the campaign?

Nick> PHILLY has always been known as the light and heavenly cream cheese. It’s a campaign that’s existed for decades, and consumers are very familiar with it - especially in Canada. Of course there were other ideas, but there was something we all found so irresistible about the opportunity to completely flip the script to get people to think about PHILLY in an entirely new way.

LBB> The details - from the name choice to the price at $6.66, to releasing on Friday the 13th - really make this campaign. What was the planning process like, and what did it take to make sure this came out on time?

Jordan> Any time you’re making an entirely new product, the process is bound to take a little longer and requires a lot of research. There were a lot of details that took time to get right - such as sourcing ingredients to get the taste of hell right, multiple rounds of taste testing, and even waiting for the perfect moment to launch. In all, it took us a little over two years to get the perfect texture and taste. And in that time, we were able to continue thinking about those small, critical details - like the price - that align with the campaign’s theme. 

Keenan> As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and we knew the details would be important for this launch to deliver an impact in a clever way. From a timing standpoint, we’re always looking to move at the speed of culture when it comes to activating great ideas, and Friday the 13th just felt right for this one. In working collaboratively with our internal teams and agency partners, we were able to uncover meaningful insights around younger consumers’ desire for spicy foods, which led to a campaign where we gave them what they crave in a clever and ownable way for the brand.

LBB> Of course - the very important question! How did you manage to get a cream cheese to 1,041,427 Scoville heat units?

Keenan> We created ‘A Little Taste of Hell’ using ghost pepper extract, which is measured at 1,041,427 Scoville units and considered 208 times hotter than jalapeños. The recipe was produced by our chefs in a limited quantity out of Kraft Heinz’s Toronto-based ghost kitchen, Kitchen 57, to deliver a hotter-than-hell sensorial experience. 

LBB> Was this specific heat unit the goal before the cream cheese was made? Or was it just the end result? 

Jordan> Thankfully, neither of us have ever been to hell, but that also means we didn’t really have a perfect idea of what it tastes like. All we knew is that if we were making the claim that it was ‘a little taste of hell’, it had to be hotter than anything we’ve ever eaten before. So, after some very painful testing, the final product was born. 

Keenan> Ghost peppers are so hot by nature, but a lot was dictated by how hot the culinary experts at Kraft Heinz’s Kitchen 57 could make it, while still remaining true to the rich and creamy PHILLY consumers know and love. We wanted to produce a product worthy of that heat that would create a bold and unique experience, and having our team try the product prior to release and experiencing how hot it was - we definitely hit our goal! 

LBB> These special units of cream cheese were given out in partnership with Uber Eats. How were the sales, and why was the opportunity limited to just Toronto?

Keenan> For one day only, we rebranded the Kitchen 57 restaurant on Uber Eats, turning it into PHILLY’s ‘Taste of Hell’, which allowed us to leverage the platform for local distribution. We knew not everyone would be able to handle the heat, so we decided to first release a limited quantity in Toronto, one of Canada’s most diverse cities and cultural hubs, allowing spice lovers across North America to comment on PHILLY’s socials, letting us know where they’d want ‘A Little Taste of Hell’ next.

LBB> Another fun aspect of the campaign is the spot. What went into bringing this to life, and who did you work with to capture footage of Canadians suffering while trying the cream cheese?

Nick> We wanted to avoid people rolling their eyes at our claim, so we aimed to keep it as authentic as possible to show that real people actually suffered after eating it. Rather than a big production, we opted to film the reactions of those poor souls you see in the video using their phones.  

LBB> Let’s talk about the music - it’s incredible! How did the Vapor collaboration bring this element to life?

Jordan> It was a lot of fun making the music. Really, it was informed by everything else we were doing to hell-ifying every angelic piece of the brand. So, for the music, we made a hell-raising, metal version of the same angelic choir song PHILLY has famously scored their commercials with in Canada for decades. All the credit goes to Vapor [Music Studio], and specifically composer Dustin Anstey who’s screams you can hear throughout. 

LBB> The fiery graphics really set the tone well. What went into executing this element of the Campaign?

Nick> These were definitely a highlight of the project. We started by just looking at all kinds of different depictions of hell as a reference, from movies, to comic book illustrations, even to ancient paintings. Together with our partners at The Vanity and Instil Image Co., we assembled the final hellscape by including all of our favourite pieces from those scenes - things like the cracked rock with lava seeping through - and built it in a way that the tub of cream cheese was perfectly nestled amidst the fire and brimstone. 

LBB> How did Torontonians react to this campaign? And more importantly, was everyone OK in the end, after trying it?

Keenan> The reaction was fantastic! We sold out in under three hours, and saw lots of social engagement between those who were able to get their hands on the product, and others asking for ‘A Little Taste of Hell’ to come to their city next. And, most importantly, there were no reports of anything serious after trying it, just lots of hiccups.

LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project? How did you overcome them?

Jordan> Creating the cream cheese itself was by far the biggest challenge. After that, the other big hurdle was distribution. Cream cheese doesn’t exactly travel well when it’s not refrigerated, so we couldn’t ship them out in standard boxes or kits. Thankfully, our partnership with Kraft Heinz’s Toronto-based ghost kitchen to distribute the cream cheese through Uber Eats did the trick. 

Keenan> From the start, there’s been so much excitement around ‘A Little Taste of Hell’, as well as a push to make it as big as possible, and with scale comes challenges. While this is certainly a good problem to have, we’re so happy with the launch in Toronto and the consumer reception we got - allowing us to determine what city, or cities, to launch in next. We would have loved to share this experience with PHILLY fans nationwide, but we look forward to exploring the possibility of expansion in the future!

LBB> What lessons have you learned during the making of this campaign? 

Jordan>  Being a part of the product development process from beginning to end was a really interesting experience. There’s a lot more that goes into the production process than we initially thought.

Nick> Also, we learned that eating really spicy things doesn’t just hurt in the moment, but for days after. 

Keenan> With ‘A Little Taste of Hell’, we needed to find the balance between integrating our product in a conversational trend, and proving to consumers why we’re arguably their favourite cream cheese brand. Ultimately, consumers showed us that they’re actively engaged in our creative work, open to new challenges, and that there's an appetite for us to potentially bring this to other markets in the future.

LBB> How does this campaign fit into your branding for 2023 and beyond?

Keenan> We’re always looking for bold and surprising ways to engage with consumers through innovation and hacking cultural trends. Last year, we put creativity and culture at the forefront by inviting the first human to heaven, and then bringing heaven to earth through our interactive ‘Stairway to Heaven’. ‘A Little Taste of Hell’ builds on this modern approach and expands on PHILLY’s goal of sparking conversation, while strengthening our bond with adventurous, spice-lovers through a unique, irreplaceable experience. (And, we did it again this week, dropping PHILLY ‘Schmear Socks’ to complement ‘Montreal Bagel sneakers’.)

LBB> Is there anything you’d like to add?

Nick> Like a chef in a restaurant, you gotta taste the food before it goes out to the customers. And we can confidently say that it lived up to its name.

Keenan> Just want to say thank you to our PHILLY fans for always showing us love, whether it be through this hotter-than-hell experience, spreading on your favourite bagel, or eating it straight out of the tub. We are nothing without our fans, and we love you right back!


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Rethink, Thu, 26 Jan 2023 16:57:10 GMT