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Contributed photo by Chattanooga Bakery Co. / MoonPie MoonMate isan Alexa virtual roommate

During a time of social isolation, an iconic Chattanooga snack brand is providing companionship to those stuck at home, at least in the virtual world.

The Moonpie MoonMate offered through Amazon's Alexa provides answers and conversation, not unlike what a real life roommate might provide, in the latest social media marketing ploy by for the makers of the 103-year-old Moonpie brand. The Chattanooga Bakery Co., which has been making the round marshmallow treats "as big as the moon" since 1917, teamed up with the Knoxville-based Tombras advertising agency to launch the "Outta This World" virtual roommate last week.

"We know how hard being stuck inside and distant from loved ones has been for everyone," said Tory Johnston, vice president of sales and marketing for MoonPie. "Our goal for MoonMate was to create conversations with a sense of empathy and understanding, all while staying true to the brand."

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Staff file photo / Tory Johnston

Chattanooga Bakery, owned by the fifth generation of the Campbell family, makes over 1 million MoonPies a day at its bakery on Moccasin Bend in Chattanooga. MoonPies are available in three sizes and six everyday flavors (Chocolate, Vanilla, Banana, Salted Caramel, Strawberry and the new Mint Chocolate).

While the snack cake has lasted for more than a century, the brand has turned to social media in recent years to help attract younger consumers.

Dooley Tombras, president of Tombras, said the MoonMate was developed in an attempt to make it easier to stay in quarantine just a little while longer and offer an alternative to other advertisements airing during the coronavirus pandemic which have offered mainly somber music and words.

The inspiration for using an Alexa-enabled voice for the brand came from a Mayo Clinic report on the body of research showing that laughter helps boost immunity and improve mental health. So while a Moonpie offers consumers an old fashion Southern treat to eat, the MoonMate provides a more contemporary, if a bit whimsical, voice for the snack brand.

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Contributed photo by Chattanooga Bakery Co. / Dooley Tombras

"MoonPie has always been a bit of a jester and voice of levity, so the brand's purpose was a natural starting point helping people through distancing, isolation and quarantine," said Jeff Benjamin, chief creative officer at Tombras.

MoonMate is programmed to carry on a conversation for days answering thousands of questions and its developers say it often offers the same snarky, but lovable comments of what a real roommate might provide, including offers to:

* Pay you rent (in the form of MoonPies)

* Avoid doing chores and other at-home activities

* Give you way too much information about its life

* Try as hard as it can to keep you inside

* Offer prompted and unprompted MoonPie facts, history, recipes, and more

* Compliment your wardrobe so much you'll wonder if it's going to steal your clothes

* Ponder space and other celestial marvels

The MoonMate builds on the brand's voice which Tombras has helped develop over the past three years through its active Twitter accounts, which Forbes magazine touted three years ago as "the unexpected social media brand" of the year.

The Chattanooga Bakery Co. gained global recognition when one of its tweets got over 1.1 billion views by its simple two word response — "Lol ok" — to its rival Hostess when the bigger snack cake giant declared on Twitter that its golden cupcakes the official snack of the solar eclipse in August 2017.

Moonpie held its own eclipse parties to mark the moon blocking out the sun, helping to boost online sales for Chattanooga Bakery in one two-week period to as much as what the company had done in an entire year previously.

The Twitter and Alexa voices for Moonpie are an attempt to keep the century-old, traditional brand current and a bit edgy for younger consumers to build another generation of fans for the marshmallow-filled treat.

"Three years ago we took a 100-year-old CPG snack cake and personified it on Twitter," Tombras said. "And now we're taking that distinct brand voice from that two-dimensional world and bringing it to a multi-dimensional audio experience and another level of brand engagement. In typical MoonPie fashion, it's totally bizarre and home grown, but it's a great example of nascent technology getting integrated with everyday life to solve a problem."

Benjamin sees the MoonPie MoonMate not just as a technological leap for brand interactions, but a new frontier for how brands will behave online.

"COVID-19 has been a time machine for culture — letting it catch up to where technology got to first," he said. "MoonMate hints at the future of conversational content and commerce where a brand's AI and voice are its soul."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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