This week marked the 100th Birthday of the venerable Oreo Cookie, that most familiar staple of cookie jars and milk-and-cookie breaks all over the world. The simple chocolate and cream filled cookie continues to grow in popularity, despite having not changed much in its 100 years of existence, managing to weather a century of constant changes in attitudes and preferences about food. Chances are pretty good if you are reading this post, you have yourself had many an Oreo over the years, your parents likely had them in the house at least sometimes, and if you are a parent, you have bribed provided them to your own kids from time to time.
I find it interesting sometimes to think about what makes products and companies so enduringly popular, especially in a time where companies and products can rapidly rise into public consciousness and success, and at times, crash, burn, and disappear almost as quickly. Ten years ago there was no Facebook, iPhone, and 'live Tweeting' would have been a term you might have been to get away with using among your bird watching buddies, (if they didn't banish you from the group for being too dorky). But here we are, 100 years later, and the Oreo is the world's most popular cookie. How did they manage that?
Certainly it is at least partially a marketing and branding story. Nabisco, the owner and manufacturer of the Oreo brand has long been a powerhouse in the consumer goods space. They know design, messaging, and how to continually reinforce the emotional connection that many consumers have with the Oreo cookie. But where does this emotional connection and attachment come from in the first place? Marketing is powerful, but is it that powerful to actually create and sustain consumer attachment for 100 years?
There is another theory about the success of the Oreo that is more interesting than advertising, it is about, for lack of a better word, user experience. As anyone who has ever eaten an Oreo knows that despite the cookie's simplicity, there are a few different ways to actually eat an Oreo. There is the dunk, the split, the split and lick, and more. All the while taking a stance and defending your preferred method of consumption with your fellow Oreo connoisseurs. The emotional attachment to the product derives at least in part from this creative freedom to consume the treat in the way you prefer. In fact, a 1981 article titled “Creative Eating: The Oreo Syndrome,” by folk historian Elizabeth Mosby Adler contends that part of the Oreo's appeal is that it allows people to bring their own personal style to experience. I suppose one could argue that Oreo was doing DIY and embracing to a small extent the 'maker' mindset that has grown in popularity in recent years.
Why is any of this important, (yes, here is the 'what can we learn' part of the post).
It is really easy when we design technology systems or new work processes to want to force, coach, or guide people to use the new tools or interact with the new system in a specific way, or in a certain, proscribed manner. We apply best practices, we do surveys, we do A/B studies, all to arrive at the 'right' way to use the system - optimized for efficiency, productivity, and utility. And truly if our users do follow these rules they probably will become more efficient and productive. But it is also likely, if they have not been offered the ability and permission to explore a little, to seek out ways of interacting with the tools or processes in a more personal way, or to find a solution that resonates with them as individuals, then an emotional connection will never be made.
And that might be perfectly fine. After all, who needs an emotional connection to be made between users and a system designed for work, not for fun? I suppose no one.
But who really needs a specific brand of chocolate and cream filled cookies either? After all, they are all pretty much the same.
Just don't tell that to a committed Oreo fan.