Zac Efron’s love for Kodiak Cakes is not an act
In a video Zac Efron posted to his Instagram account in June, he’s lying on the grass with his head resting on a plaid pillow. “Maybe I do have commitment issues,” he discloses to his co-star, an 800-pound grizzly bear named Tank. Later, he asks the bear, “Do you like flapjacks or waffles?
Amid the creepily-obsessed comments below the video, Efron’s fans tried to guess what the promo was for. “Season 2 of Down to Earth?” they asked, adding armies of red heart emojis. When it was announced a week later that Efron was the new chief brand officer of Kodiak Cakes, none of those fans called out the partnership as forced. That’s because, at its core, it isn’t.
“Kodiak and I share a common philosophy when it comes to food and a genuine love for adventure and the great outdoors,” Efron writes to me via email. “We want to inspire people to eat better, get outdoors more, and give back more. The impact we will have together through these projects is what makes this so different than just being a brand ambassador.”
It’s true. Since Michael Jordan struck his $1.3 billion deal with Nike in 1984, celebrity endorsements have become a massive component in the business strategies of our economy’s behemoths—and celebrities are no longer treated as billboards in brand partnerships.
According to Statista, the influencer marketing industry has grown from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $13.8 billion in 2021. In the last year, Megan Thee Stallion worked closely with Popeyes to release an exclusive line of hot sauces and merchandise, with part of her contract including a multi-franchise ownership deal. Doja Cat has been given complete creative control of her brand ambassador partnership with JBL speakers, an agreement that would have been unheard of a short time ago. And while Ye(Kanye West)’s 10-year partnership with Gap might just save the past-its-prime retailer, he also gets to demand that the Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga clothing collection be sold from piles of trash bags.
Ryan Reynolds took an active role in the day-to-day business and creative direction of Aviation Gin after acquiring it. Actress Elizabeth Banks assumed the role of co-owner and chief creative officer upon partnering with Archer Roose, one of the country’s top purveyors of canned wines. So, too, does the Zac Efron x Kodiak Cakes partnership run deeper than a run-of-the-mill celebrity endorsement. Efron is a bonafide member of the company’s C-suite and is committed to collaborating on projects and attending board meetings.
“There’s a difference in the culture right now about what people see through, and notice is fake. Studies show that consumer’s expectations are higher of brands than they are in the government,” says Cory Bayers, CMO of Kodiak Cakes and an experienced marketer who has previously worked his magic for outdoor-centric brands like Helly Hansen, Lululemon, and Patagonia.
“I don’t sell things. I tell stories,” Bayers says. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with brands where the stories are real. There’s no fabrication, which is the stereotype of what a marketer does.”
IMAGES APPEAR COURTESY OF KODIAK CAKES
Because of Kodiak Cakes’ commitment to creating healthy, whole grain, and high-protein breakfast items, athlete partnerships have always been a natural fit. Ultrarunners Shalane Flanagan and Courtney Dauwalter, as well as rock climbers Matty Hong and Emily Harrington, were added to the Kodiak roster. Many of the athletes were already eating Kodiak Cakes before the partnerships were formed, says Cameron Smith, president and co-founder of Kodiak Cakes.
“We never want our customers to feel that Kodiak has lost its soul or is just trying to get a quick buck,” Smith says about the grassroots-type partnerships the company was built on. “It’s always been very much about getting the product into people’s hands and mouths, knowing that once people try it, they tell us they love it. They become authentic brand ambassadors because they love [the product] and are using it.”
So when Kodiak Cakes began talking about bringing on a main celebrity partner, the team created a long list of potential candidates that reflected the company’s ideals. Near the very top of the list, Smith says, was Efron.
“On his show ‘Down to Earth’ and with how Zac views food, lifestyle, and taking care of his body, we just got that rustic, outdoor vibe from him,” Smith says. “He didn’t have any brands attached to him, and in our conversations, he mentioned being hesitant to attach himself to a brand. He cares a lot about his personal image and who he’s connected to. That just made us even more excited.”
Venturing into uncharted waters, Smith says the Kodiak team didn’t know what to expect upon meeting Efron for the first time. But when Efron visited company headquarters to attend a board meeting before the announcement went live, they did what all executives do to get to know each other—they walked around Whole Foods together.
“We talked with Zac about certain products and ingredients and what he looks for in his food. It was really cool to hear how he thinks about nutrition,” Smith says. “He’s very mindful of what he’s putting into his body.”
The partnership was a big leap for Kodiak Cakes and a big leap for Efron, Smith says.
“I was walking around the office with him, showing him what we’ve built here, and I was just so impressed with how approachable he was,” he continues. “In the board meeting, you could tell he was really seeking to learn. It was cool to watch someone who has been so successful in their career have that desire to continue to learn about other things that they’re doing in their life.”
For Efron, the feeling was mutual. As a “longtime fan” of Kodiak Cakes’ products, Efron says the partnership felt organic from the start. “We all share a similar mentality about living life to its fullest, and the team really encouraged me to come to the table as a collaborative partner,” he says. “We’re aligned in terms of brand strategy and sustainability goals, and I’m excited to see what we can do together.”
ZAC EFRON AND JOEL CLARK PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAUREN C. PANDOLFI FOR KODIAK CAKES.
Kodiak Cakes’ commitment to sustainability and conservation is important to Efron, who has demonstrated his own eco-conscious beliefs on “Down to Earth.” Throughout the eight-part Netflix series, Efron travels to Iceland to learn about renewable energy, lives off the grid in Costa Rica, and advocates against biopiracy in Lima.
With Kodiak, Efron is throwing his weight behind the Keep it Wild initiative. The first sold-out product drop included limited-edition prints and apparel, with 100 percent of the proceeds and a dollar-matched donation from Kodiak Cakes going directly toward the conservation of grizzly bear and wildlife habitats.
“We are going to continue partnering with artists and other brands to create limited-edition products and apparel to raise money for a range of conservation initiatives around North America focused on preserving delicate ecosystems for wildlife and future generations,” Efron says.
“Keeping it wild” extends into the ways the team at Kodiak Cakes thinks about their partnership with Efron, too. “We’re asking, ‘How can we make sure that Zac is woven throughout the organization?’” Smith says. “Whether it’s through different products that we’re able to launch with Zac’s thumbprint or other ways we’re able to do good as a brand, we want Zac’s thoughts there. We want to stay close to him and ensure he is helping us as we navigate some of those areas for Kodiak.”
Of course, Kodiak Cakes also aims to be the top pancake mix worldwide—and this partnership with Efron just might get them there.
“When I joined [Kodiak Cakes] in 2019, sales were just under a million dollars,” Smith says. “I remember meeting another company at a food show, and they said they were doing about $15 million in annual revenue. At the time, I thought, ‘Holy cow, that’s more than a million dollars a month.’ I remember thinking how cool it would be if Kodiak got to that level.”
Kodiak far exceeded that level this last year, making more than $300 million in annual revenue. “To see that, and to see that someone like Zac is excited to partner with Kodiak and that athletes are saying that they love the product—it just blows my mind,” Smith says.
In an interview with Forbes earlier this year, Kodiak Cakes co-founder Joel Clark mentioned the company was only one and a half market share points away from being the number one pancake mix brand on the market.
“When I started working with Joel, our pancake share was about 2 percent of the category. The pancake category was worth $300 million, and we had 2 percent of those dollars,” Smith says. “Today, the pancake category has almost doubled, and as a brand, we’re close to a 20 percent share.”
Now Kodiak Cakes is right behind Pearl Milling Company—formerly known as Aunt Jemima—and gaining speed fast. “We have our hearts set on not just becoming the number one brand, but elevating what food can mean to consumers in this category,” Smith says. “When we become number one, we’ll have shifted what pancakes mean to consumers.”
To the Kodiak Cakes team, pancakes are more than just America’s favorite breakfast item. Bayers believes the company’s products “fuel epic days and wilder lives.” and that an epic life can be achieved whether you’re a professional rock climber, a single mother starting her own business, or—in the case of Zac Efron—a movie star.
“Someone on our leadership team once said that they feed their kids Kodiak Cakes so they can have epic days, too,” Bayers says. “Even if they are just sending their kids off to school, they want them to have an epic day where they’re meeting new friends, doing new things, and where anything is possible.”
ZAC EFRON PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAUREN C. PANDOLFI FOR UTAH BUSINESS