The King of Hotdoggers

photo by Eric Tadsen

Frankly speaking, Ed Roland may have the best job on the planet. It's certainly the most unique, concurs Syd Lindner, associate director of corporate affairs at Kraft Foods, who added enthusiastically, "There's not another job like it in the world!"
 

Roland is the mobile marketing manager for Kraft Foods in Madison. Well, that's the official name. Unofficially, he's more likely called "The Wienermobile Guy." His job, among other things, is to manage the fleet of eight (six active) world-famous orange and yellow sausage-shaped vehicles touring the country year-round, and the hotdoggers who drive them. That's right, the "hotdoggers," the college graduates who sign their lives away for one year to become human marketers for Kraft/Oscar Mayer.

"We are a little Disney-esque," Roland admits. "We're making the magic." And the ghost of Carl Mayer, who first proposed the idea of the wiener-shaped vehicle to his uncle O-S-C-A-R in 1936, must be laughing all the way to the bank.

For all the fun the Wienermobile and its hotdoggers bring, the brilliance behind the brand is serious business for Kraft/Oscar Mayer, and Roland's job is to make sure it stays that way. The hotdogger program has been in existence since 1988, and each year Roland visits college campuses in search of the perfect hotdogging class. Up to 1,500 applicants — often with marketing or communication degrees — compete for the dozen or so coveted positions. "We've had a cheerleader from Penn State, a mascot from the University of Missouri, and several former Buckys," Roland said. "They must be people-people, because they represent us 24/7."

So, did he always wish to be an Oscar Mayer wiener? He certainly lobbied for the chief hotdogger opportunity. A graduate of UW-Oshkosh, Roland is in his 13th year with the company, where he worked in promotions and later packaging, until five years ago, when his predecessor in this position decided to retire. "I really wanted the job," he said.

His office is located in the Wienermobile department at Oscar Mayer, where stuffed Wienermobiles of all sizes embellish cubicles. Whistles, beanies, photos, and even a Wienermobile parking sign also grace the space. It's simply hard not to smile.

Photos of past hotdoggers are taped to cabinets and pinned to bulletin boards. Over 300 young adults have participated in the marketing adventure, and many have used the unique experience to "furter" their careers — some with large advertising agencies, cruise ships, and sports organizations. One former hotdogger works on Roland's staff.

"The position opens doors," he said.

In his office, Roland's wall calendar has the year strategically mapped out: He's in the recruiting mode right now, and by February he'll be visiting campuses. Second interviews will be conducted in March. Then, after students graduate in May, those lucky enough to pass a standard background check and make the final cut will attend Hot Dog High in June, a boot camp of sorts. Training is rigorous, he insists — er, not for weenies.

For 16 straight days, and from seven in the morning until almost 10 at night, Roland leads a crash course on all things Oscar Mayer, from the company's history to procedural matters, such as filing expense reports. Hotdoggers learn about working with the media, receive some crisis training, engage in team-building activities, and rub shoulders with the Oscar Mayer executive leadership team. They also receive over 40 hours of driver training, though piloting the famous 27-foot wiener on wheels does not require a special driver's license.

Upon graduation from Hot Dog High, those still standing are rewarded with the keys to their Wienermobile. Roland is in charge of keeping hotdoggers supplied with everything they'll need for their journey, from company apparel to promotional items, laptops, PDAs, and cameras. "They're our face," he said.

He assigns the hotdoggers — in teams of two — to each of six regions across the country: east, midwest, southwest, south, southeast, and northwest. He also negotiates with hotels, often receiving a reduced rate because, well, what hotel wouldn't want a Wienermobile parked in its lot?

"No matter what this vehicle does, it's news," Lindner chimes in. The fleet travels over 200,000 miles each year, and pictures of a rare flat tire or — as has happened, a non-ticketed traffic stop for a broken tail light — almost immediately hit the Internet.

For one year, Oscar Mayer will pay for all of the hotdoggers' expenses, and they'll also earn a competitive salary, though the company would not divulge any financial details. They are allowed two days off a week (usually Mondays and Tuesdays), and get vacation time around traditional holidays.

Hotdogging is harder than it seems, Roland insists. "It's not easy living out of hotels nearly every day of the year," which is why the company encourages camaraderie and also team-building. "They need each other. Family and friends back home don't always understand why it's a tough job."

Every day he checks in with his hotdoggers, who are required to provide him with daily reports of their event activities. How many people did they see? How did an event go? How many whistles were handed out? How many pictures were taken? Roland uses their feedback to measure the program's success year-to-year. Yet, when asked to quantify the value of the Wienermobile program to Oscar Mayer, Roland pauses. Can a value even be placed on it? "We're planting seeds," he finally answers, and whatever the cost, it's an investment the company seems willing to make to create long-lasting memories and gain lifelong customers.

"'I remember…' is the most common thing we do here," Roland says. After all, who does not remember getting their first wiener whistle? Or seeing the Wienermobile for the first — or even the umpteenth — time? To this day, over a quarter-million whistles are handed out each year.

Roland oversees a nationwide maintenance agreement with Penske, and has mandated a monthly service appointment for each vehicle. Every eight-years, on a rotating basis, Wienermobiles get refurbished, which might include refreshing the fiberglass interior, exterior, or chassis. The current fleet is built on a Chevy V-8 chassis, though a special 15-foot-long mini-version, introduced for Oscar Mayer's 125th anniversary in 2008, was designed on a Mini Cooper frame.

Hotdoggers must inspect their vehicles daily, and keep them sparkly clean, which begs the question, how do you wash a Wienermobile? Truck washes, of course, though local fire departments have been known to accommodate. "They love their trucks as much as we love ours," Roland laughed.

His staff fields 10,000 requests for Wienermobile appearances every year, but only about 1,500 can be executed, and the lion's share of those are reserved for customer-focused activities (i.e. grocery stores), with charitable community events, festivals, and parades rounding out the balance. With two reserve Wienermobiles on hand, Roland said it's unlikely the company would increase the size of the fleet. "Having only six active vehicles makes any appearance all the more special."

One downside to his job, he says, is being on-call 24/7. "No matter what I'm doing on weekends or at night, my phone always rings." Hotdoggers, he said, call with logistic issues or questions about an event. "My family has gotten used to it." Still, he has no plans to give up this gig anytime soon.

"I love it here," he said.

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