CPG Playbook   //   April 6, 2023

How Truff struck a deal for a product collaboration tied to The Super Mario Bros Movie

This week, Truff released a limited-edition trio of  sauces tied to the release of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros Movie. The truffle-infused hot sauces will be sold through Truff’s website as a collectible set, featuring characters from the video game, like Mario, Toad and Peach.

It’s the latest collaboration for the five-year-old sauce startup, coming on the heels of product partnerships with Taco Bell and Hidden Valley Ranch. In the days ahead of the launch, the online waitlist surpassed 15,000 sign-ups — reaching 20,000 by the April 4 release. Ebay listings for the yet-to-ship set are asking for as much as $150; the set is sold for $69.99 on Truff’s website. While this collaboration is being released exclusively for DTC customers, Truff is hoping it will introduce the brand to a more mainstream audience. 

“As we expand our presence in retail, we want to find unique ways to appeal to consumers that we may not typically target,” said Michelle Gabe, director of marketing at Truff.

Seeking out mainstream collaborations 

“Partnerships have become really big for us since we pivoted from DTC to a presence in over 19,000 doors,” Gabe explained, noting that most Americans now live within 10 miles from a store that sells Truff products. In the past month, Truff’s hot sauces entered 385 Sprouts locations, and the pasta sauce line expanded into 1,000 Walmart Supercenters.

Since launching in 2017 with hot sauce, Truff has since expanded its product offerings and focused on more niche brand collaborations in streetwear and music. In the past year, the company has leveled up to working with bigger brands. In October, Truff collaborated with Taco Bell on a limited edition menu item, nacho fries topped with Truff’s Hotter Hot Sauce. And in late 2022, Truff partnered with Hidden Valley Ranch after years of customers requesting a ranch sauce, following a pizza collaboration with Gopuff.

These merchandise collaborations, said Gabe, are part of Truff’s goal to tap into the mainstream zeitgeist and reach a more mass audience. Truff also saw the Super Mario Bros Movie release as an opportunity to tap into nostalgia, featuring highly-shareable content.

“Working with Nintendo and Universal was a bit of a different approach, because it’s the first time we’re working with a big film studio,” Gabe said. The new Super Mario Bros Movie is a joint production between Illumination, Nintendo and Universal Pictures. Gabe confirmed the company has been previously approached by other studios, but those releases didn’t feel like a natural fit for the brand. “Obviously, mushrooms make sense for a truffle sauce brand tie-in,” she said.

The idea for the collaboration came to Gabe when seeing the Super Mario Bros Movie trailer in theaters last fall. “I immediately, during the movie, started looking on LinkedIn for a contact to reach out to,” Gabe said. Through the search, Truff ended up connecting with the partnerships lead for Universal Pictures. That team also worked on Olipop’s banana cream flavor collaboration, for the release of Illumination’s Minions movie last summer. 

So far, the Super Mario announcement has generated buzz for Truff. The brand received over 5,000 social media shares in the first hour of the posting, with engagement rate on Truff’s Instagram channel spiking by 11%. The release day also generated organic social posts by celebrities like Zedd, Audrina Patridge and Christina Milian.

Adhering to guidelines and stipulations 

With a tight turnaround time, the Truff marketing team quickly created mockups — which are typically done for the brand’s “What if…” series. The tongue-in-cheek series runs on Truff’s Instagram feed as a public-facing wish list of brands the company wants to collaborate with. The most recent example was a mockup of a Tiffany & Co. x Truff partnership. By January, Truff got the go from Universal, Illumination and Nintendo to proceed with a limited-edition item inspired by their original mockup. 

The marketing team took on some operational responsibilities in order to figure out how to bring the collaboration to life. “We had to create designs under specific branding guidelines,” Gabe said. The Super Mario-themed bottles prompted some production modifications, like sourcing boxes that can have the Mario branding’s bright colorways printed as opposed to the company’s classic black gift boxes. Truff also created new bottle cap colors, in blue and orange colors. Until now, all Truff bottles used black, red or white caps. 

Going into this partnership, Gabe said, “we had a lot of cool ideas that we ended up having to tame for the ‘real world.’” One of Truff’s original proposals was to have the Peach character throw a fireball that morphs into a Truff sauce bottle. “But that was rejected, because our two worlds can’t fully merge,” Gabe said. 

Even having Mario’s bouncing motion generate a truffle instead of the default mushroom wasn’t approved. “All these stipulations restrict you in some ways, but in the end we made it work,” Gabe said.

Gabe said the process led to some bigger lessons — “most importantly knowing to manage expectations of what we’re able to do internally as a startup.” The other takeaway is that when working with big corporations, emerging brands have to account for longer wait times for asset approvals.

“As a startup, you have to have a certain level of confidence to approach big brands and entities,” Gabe said. The brand’s recent Taco Bell collab was also kicked off via DMs. “We try to do all the legwork to show how we can bring the product to life and the benefits of partnering with us, such as creating a viral moment.”

For the Taco Bell menu item run, the goal was to bring awareness and sampling to a national audience, Gabe said. “For any brands that are looking for partnerships and not feel they’re big enough, every partnership is a step closer to a major deal,” Gabe said. Truff’s first branded partnership was a digital collaboration with Bagel Bites in May 2021, in which Truff used its YouTube channel and partner influencers for video content.

“That created a case study that led to our collaboration with Noodles & Company,” she explained. The two companies created the Truff Mac, a limited-edition spin on Noodles & Company’s Wisconsin mac and cheese dish, drizzled with Truff’s black truffle sauce. The item was sold in select Noodles & Company locations nationwide in late 2021.

CPG consultant Nate Rosen said these types of collaborations are becoming more common.

In 2021, Asian-inspired sparkling water Sanzo and sauce brand Omsom struck licensing deals with Disney to feature Raya and the Last Dragon on packaging. Sanzo and Fly by Jing also created limited-edition drops for Pixar’s Turning Red release last year. Last summer, better-for-you snack brand Lesser Evil debuted a limited-edition popcorn bag for the release of Jurassic World Dominion. 

“For emerging brands… these collaborations make them look and feel bigger to mainstream shoppers,” Rosen, who is also the author of a CPG focused newsletter called Express Checkout, said. At the same time, media conglomerates like Disney are leveraging health trends by partnering with hip, young brands. “It’s no longer just Coke and McDonald’s getting these product tie-in deals,” Rosen said. “At the same time, you have to know what types of deals are worth allocating resources to.” 

Indeed, startups with limited resources have to pick and choose what types of co-branded marketing tactics to go after in the hopes of acquiring customers. 

One balancing act for Truff specifically is the need to space these releases out, Gabe said, especially for a brand like hers that aims to do multiple collaborations per year. 

“We’re trying our best to give these collaborations breathing room,” Gabe said. “It’s all about finding different ways to excite consumers who may not have heard about us until now.”