Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Crafting a Single for Kraft Singles

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
LBB’s Ben Conway speaks to creative agency Johannes Leonardo and Scheme Engine director Sammy Rawal about the single and music video they created, featuring Kelis, for Kraft’s iconic cheese slices

A single for Kraft Singles… the word play is right there! It’s a surprise that this extremely fun concept hadn’t been done before, but creative agency Johannes Leonardo spotted the opportunity and took the idea to another level. Hoping to push the nostalgic food brand into a new light, the agency created an unexpected, musical campaign that takes Kraft Singles out of the kitchen and onto centre stage.

Working with platinum-selling singer Kelis for the ‘Square It’ single and utilising the talents of dancer Honey Balenciaga for the accompanying music video, Johannes Leonardo created a campaign that combines music and food into a tasty package. Using the Kraft Singles’ name and its iconic yellow square visual as a starting point, the campaign took on a greater form when production company Scheme Engine and its director Sammy Rawal got involved and produced a music video for the single.

To get an insight into how this campaign came about and was developed, LBB’s Ben Conway spoke to the team at Johannes Leonardo: copywriter Zoe Myers and art director Matthew Barton, the director Sammy Rawal and Kraft’s American Slices brand manager, Kylea Pittrich.

LBB> Where did the initial creative spark for doing a single for Kraft Singles come from? The wordplay is right there - but how was the concept of actually writing and recording a single, with a music video, made into a reality?

Zoe> Despite being an iconic part of American culture and a leader in the American cheese category, Kraft Singles doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. So from the beginning, our goal was to create unexpected work that pushed a nostalgic brand into a new light and took Kraft Singles out of the kitchen and into pop culture. How do we create hype about an unsung square? Sing about it. 

The idea was right there in the name. A Singles Single. Sure, we could tell our consumers about all the ways to Square It in an ad. Or we could rap about it in a song. We simply took the product’s ubiquity and made it rhyme. Once the lyrics were down on paper, we knew we had something special. Mentally, we shifted from an ad agency to a music studio. In order to do right by this track, we needed to treat it like an authentic single release. Find the perfect music. Attach a killer voice. Create a dope music video. Craft the ultimate drop. The Singles Single brings everything you love about the classic American cheese into a wonderful package — a tasty pairing of music and food. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration and non-stop enthusiasm from our partners at Kraft Heinz. In every direction, there was just so much passion for this non-advertisement advertisement. 

LBB> The visual of a vinyl record - especially with an all-yellow design - is almost identical to the image of a Kraft Single. How did this influence the campaign and how did you incorporate this comparison and imagery into the campaign?

Matthew> There’s just something so iconic about the yellow square that is a Kraft Single. It’s instantly recognisable. So every creative decision was made with the square in mind. When we concepted the Singles Single, we thought to ourselves: you know what else is square? A vinyl album cover. So really, the square not only informed our process, but inspired it. Once the cheese-inspired cover was established, we took the design as far as we could, even encasing the yellow record in plastic wrap to really mimic a single slice of American cheese. So when you’re opening the vinyl, it feels like you’re opening a Kraft Single. Squares are at the centre of this entire campaign, encouraging you to enjoy the irresistible melt and so-good taste in all sorts of ways. We’ve got square records, square hand choreography throughout the music video, square in the very name of the song… We had a lot of fun treating this iconic shape as a motif on every platform.

LBB> How was the process of writing and recording the song, working with Kelis and distributing the song? 

Zoe> Honestly, writing the lyrics was the easiest part. There really are endless ways to use Kraft Singles and making those methods rhyme made for a glorious day at work. We also had permission to sprinkle in some charming sass throughout the song. ‘Hella hotta than ricotta’ is my personal favourite line in the song. The words came together quickly and have pretty much stayed the same since we first presented it. The Singles Single really started its life as a Single slam poem. Without any music, we’d do our best to rap it in early rounds. It was… not pretty. Our wonderful music partner was Human Worldwide, whose sublime sound brought this thing to life. Their original demo for the Singles Single seriously bumped. It suddenly went from being words on a page to a straight-up jam. 

All the stars aligned when Kelis came on board as our talent. She’s a platinum singer/songwriter and Cordon Bleu-trained chef who’s already famous for singing about dairy. Now truly, the dairy queen of pop. Recording with Kelis was a dream. During the record, she told us that ‘Square It’ was her kids favourite song of hers which gave us all a good laugh.

LBB> How did you first react to hearing the recorded song? 

Zoe> Playing the recorded song over our loudspeakers for the first time was like an out-of-body experience. I’m used to writing ads, not songs. So hearing a multi-platinum artist sing words that came from my Google doc was absolutely surreal. We had always intended to use the song in a couple of product-focused spots for broadcast. But after a few rounds of tinkering with the demo, we felt inspired to create a visual story that belonged to the song alone. By the time we recorded with Kelis, we were working on music video concepts in the background.

Kylea> Cheesy in the best way possible! The song exceeded our expectations. Kelis’ approach to culinary meets creativity was exactly what we were looking for in creating a tasty pairing of music and food. And when JL approached us to create an accompanying music video, it was a no-brainer. The Singles Single campaign is our first brand activation for Square It - a new brand platform that is taking an ‘anti-advertising’ approach to engage with consumers in new and exciting ways. It’s something that Kraft Heinz is doing across its entire portfolio of brands with a focus on cultural relevance. 

Matthew> Enough is never enough. Especially in advertising. At every point of this project, we asked ourselves: ‘what more could we do? How can we make this even better?’. Kraft had an appetite for more as well. They really took on this mantra of  anti-advertising and fully leaned in. Given the energy behind the Singles Single, we were all fully invested in making this single release as authentic and full-out as possible. A real artist would drop a music video with a single. So that’s exactly what we did.

LBB> What was the initial idea for the video and where did you take inspiration from? 

Zoe> With a track as playful as the Singles Single, we wanted the film to be equally as energetic and just as ridiculous. The lyrics are so unapologetically food-centric, we started to think about the mastermind behind all the food. Who is this chef? What is their process? If left alone in a kitchen, what spectacle would ensue? As this idea began to form, we watched a million music videos for inspiration. We were particularly drawn to Kanye West’s Fade. Our focus was entertainment value, so not everything needed to be rationalised as a traditional ad does. In a music video, clones can appear out of an industrial pillar without further question. Does it get weird? Yes. But does the weird make it more fun to watch? Also yes. Very much like the cheese, this music video can and will surprise you. And that’s the point.

Sammy> Kelis is a total icon. I remember when her track ‘Caught Out There’ came out and it was everything to me - her voice, her lyrics, the Neptunes production… and then the music video?! The first time I heard ‘Square It’, I knew it was so fire. I’m such a music head and the first few beats of the track already had me hooked…’Grillin, chillin, spillin, dillin, BEC-ing, never brie-ing’?! The beat and tempo had me instantly thinking about how different forms of dance could look over top of it. 

The initial brief was about a chef character in hyperbolic, fun creation mode in a kitchen, with choreographed sequences and multiplication of the main character. I then took this framework and got to translate the persona of the character, movement and absurdity into something of my own design. The agency and client gave me a ton of enthusiastic freedom and flexibility and I applaud them for embracing the queerness of my choices!  It was especially refreshing that these ideas were welcomed on a big brand commercial project outside of Pride season.

LBB> When in the process did you involve Honey Balenciaga? Did she help choreograph the video? 

Zoe> Honey Balenciaga was always part of Sammy’s vision. Ballroom was on the table from the start, and we all agreed that our leading chef had to be an exceptional mover and a hypnotising lead. Honey’s reputation, experience, and social presence precedes her, and lucky for us, Sammy just happens to be friends with her. Honey brought everything she had. She was an absolute firecracker on set. From improvising choreography to designing her wardrobe to jumping on Zoom to hear feedback directly from us, she wanted to be involved in everything.

Matthew> Throughout the day, there was a lot of improv and watching Honey be inspired by the set around her. At one point, she spontaneously jumped into this giant pot and it ended up making the final cut. Honestly most of our shoot day stories are about Honey. If you meet her once, you’ll understand why.

Sammy> Honey is everything - she’s such a star. This was a great opportunity to bring her talent with character and dance outside of ballroom where she is globally celebrated. I’m very familiar with Honey’s movement and personality so I worked closely with her and our amazing choreographer, Addy Chan, to build her transformation from chef to culinary goddess. She comes alive when she knows she’s being watched and, no shade - she knows it! We didn’t want to just capture a voguing performance - it was important to design her character beats but then give her the freedom and flexibility to bring her own voice and ideas into the mix and that’s where a lot of magic came from. Her work ethic is unparalleled and she’s an incredible creative force.

LBB> The red lighting really brings a literal ‘hell’s kitchen’ vibe to the video - how did you achieve this effect on set and later in post?  

Sammy> Right?! We wanted that golden, red lighting in there for that reason. Obviously the golden light is a cute, subliminal nod to the brand itself and we injected some red into the frame to really play up the heat and playful sexiness of the scene. In the grade, we definitely leaned in hard into this colourful world.

LBB> How has the reaction been to the single and the video - do you have any data that you can share?

Kylea> The reaction to both the single and the music video has been overwhelmingly positive. After launch, the song quickly landed in the top 20% of all tracks streaming on Spotify, which consists of 90 million tracks, and the music video has seen over 40.5 million views to date! As we looked to launch Kraft Singles back into cultural conversations, it’s been great to see consumers, family, friends and some major industry names champion the work. We love the reactions from Kelis and Honey as our partners who made this song and video a reality, but we also saw engagement from Megan Thee Stallion on Instagram which was amazing!

LBB> What was the hardest challenge you faced on this project and how did you overcome it?

Matthew> To put things frankly, it’s a miracle that the record was made in time. Apparently, vinyls typically take six months to a year to produce. We had about eight weeks. Thanks to some producer sorcery, we somehow pulled it off. In The Clouds pressed the vinyls and Proof7 made all the printed materials. On our end, there was a momentary confusion between 45s vs 33s that almost set us back, but it was a false alarm. This is what happens when millennials are in charge of making records.

Sammy> Time and money… am I allowed to say that? In a perfect world, I would have loved to do this job over two or three shoot days. A lot of setups are deceivingly quite technical and required time to get right. We had a very ambitious day in terms of number of shots I wanted to get and anxiety about pulling it off in one day and with remote clients and agency feedback to factor in. It was a true blessing that we were all so creatively aligned - every aspect of the shoot was meticulously planned and discussed. Planning is key but if you can’t think on your toes and pivot/react/problem-solve, you’re fucked. And good vibes on set are a must!

LBB> Anything else to add? 

Zoe> For everyone, this was really a bucket list project. When untraditional work like this comes along, there’s so much to be taken away from the experience. For us, we saw firsthand the power of passion behind an idea. When you’re excited about the work, the work is better. If it’s something you want to bring up with your friends outside of advertising, you know you’ve got something good. That, and there really is nothing like a classic grilled cheese. We also learned the importance of asking ‘what if?’. These two words led us to producing a record, working with a multi-platinum artist and shooting a music video with a ballroom legend. Over and over, Kraft was willing and eager to take risks. And when your partner is willing to go, go all the way.

Work from Johannes Leonardo
Bacon Beauty
Oscar Mayer
Bacon Shaving
Oscar Mayer
Hey Jude