As Southern traditions go, having a MoonPie with an RC Cola is right up there with biscuits and gravy or football on Saturdays. In 2017, Patrick Wells (’14) launched MoonPie into the national spotlight with his viral work on the brand’s social media.
Though the graham cracker, marshmallow, and chocolate treat is a classic snack brand (which has expanded to multiple flavors over time) its digital strategy was due for an update.
Working for the Tombras Group, an advertising agency with a Knoxville office, Wells helped launch a campaign for MoonPie to attract millennials.
“Our approach was to simply be different and find a way to do it that seemed effortless from the outside,” Wells says. “A lot of brands still rely on the soft sell, but people see past that now, so we’re either a blatant ironic oversell or no sell at all. It’s such a fun brand, and it would be an injustice to be anything but fun.”
Though MoonPie was beginning to attract a large following online, the total solar eclipse that took place in August 2017 was just the help Wells needed.
When the Hostess Cakes Twitter account declared their own Golden Cupcake the official snack of the eclipse, MoonPie took umbrage and replied to Hostess with a simple “lol ok” tweet, which went resoundingly viral and garnered more than 196,000 retweets.
“I’d first like to thank the eclipse,” Wells says with a laugh. “It really put a spotlight on what we were already doing—but when we hit, we took it and ran and started putting more resources and attention into it.”
In the months following, the internet continued to laugh, like, and retweet as Wells served up playful insults to critics of the snack and got into fun tweet conversations with other brands like Wendy’s.
Buzzfeed called the account “hysterically weird,” while the AV Club said MoonPie was becoming “the only good thing about Twitter.” Wells’s work even landed a write-up in Forbes, which called MoonPie the unexpected top social media brand of 2017.
Not only were the congenial and charismatic tweets surprising the internet in the best way, they were also having an effect on sales. After the August tweet, demand for MoonPies exceeded production capacity for the first time in decades. In September, sales were the highest on record in the company’s 100-year history.
To the outside world, running social media for a brand might seem like an easy job, but Wells says a lot of hard work goes into it.
As a student of UT’s Advertising program, he had learned the importance of that hard work and “to think critically and conceptually.”
On top of that work ethic, Wells quickly learned to take advantage of the connections that UT offered. It was on the annual advertising and public relations trip to New York City that Wells made a connection with someone at Tombras, where he eventually was brought on as an intern and worked his way up to a senior social media manager.
“I’ve traveled all over the US, met Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrote and helped direct some incredible commercial shoots, and worked with some amazing people,” Wells says. “If you’re good and persistent enough, you’ll get those opportunities if you really want them.”
In January 2018, Wells parlayed his MoonPie success into a move to New York City to continue his copywriting career at an agency called Laundry Service. “I want to continue to make creative and disruptive work,” Wells says. “A lot of jobs that are valuable now didn’t exist 10 years ago, so I’m keeping an open mind.”
The social media landscape is constantly evolving, and Wells understands the necessity of staying informed. “Before, social media jobs were just kids who knew what a hashtag was, but now it’s evolved into a full creative spectrum where everyone has to know what’s going on in the industry,” says Wells.
“It’s hard to get a job in advertising, especially in creative, if you don’t have a perspective on how social media ticks.”
While critics say social media is ruining our lives, Wells is able to see the good in the digital age. “I think Twitter, for example, gives people a voice they never had,” he says. “If your thoughts and sentiments are honest and true, they’ll resonate and have the potential to create a lot of change, as we’ve seen recently.”
Though Wells is no longer the caretaker of the MoonPie digital brand, he offers a hot take when asked about his favorite flavor. “It doesn’t matter what flavor, but I highly recommend heating them up in the microwave with a little ice cream. Life changing.”