Case Study: Barilla’s "While the Water Boils" Is Not A Pasta Commercial

How host Hannah Hart and crew focus on content over branding

Now in its fourth season, each episode of the Barilla food company’s web series While the Water Boils features Hannah Hart, the YouTube personality famous for My Drunk Kitchen (as well as the recent reboot of kitschy 70s superhero series Electra Woman and Dyna Girl alongside fellow YouTuber Grace Helbig), doing one-on-one interviews with successful people—Science Guy Bill Nye, comedian Wanda Sykes, fashion designer Rachel Zoe and photographer Paul Nicklen to name a few—about their passions in life.

And as the title of the series implies, they chat for about as long as it takes a pot of water to boil, then hit the kitchen to whip up a quick dish using Barilla pasta. That said, there is no hard sell. You’ll see a product shot, and you are directed to the Barilla website if you’d like to view the recipe made during the episode. But Hart and her subjects aren’t dropping mentions of Barilla into their conversations, and no one poses with the product or provides any endorsement.

It’s really all about the interviews and Hart finding out what makes these people tick, which is why the series, which runs on YouTube, is so entertaining and popular—all of the episodes combined have earned more than 24 million views.

Danny Pudi’s Passion for Dancing | While the Water Boils Ep 10

“We’re not making pasta commercials,” says Tony Rogers, an EVP/creative director at Edelman, the public relations and marketing consulting firm that produces the work with the marketing team from Barilla. “We all have those instincts, but it’s saying from the start to the talent, to each other—these aren’t commercials. We’re not pushing product benefits. We are trying to make a bigger connection with the essence of the brand.”

Barilla is specifically trying to reach millennials with While the Water Boils. “As a leader in the pasta category, we wanted to really invigorate the category,” says Prita Wadhwani, Barilla’s head of marketing communications, noting that pasta advertising tends to focus on the values of tradition and family.

“These are all good things, but they’re a little old-fashioned,” Wadhwani says.

The brand’s research revealed that millennials have a sense of adventure and value experiences, though they don’t always feel as though they have the time to pursue their passions. That insight got Barilla and Edelman thinking about how passion is organic to pasta as a category and led to the theme of “while the water boils” and rediscovering one’s passion and ultimately an interview series on YouTube hosted by Hart, who was an obvious choice given that she is an influencer millennials identify with.

The YouTube celebrity jumped on the gig because it allowed her to indulge both her love of food and getting to know people. “One of my greatest passions is talking to people,” Hart says. “It doesn’t matter what you do for a living—you could be a botanist, whatever. As long as you have interests and passion behind your work, I will love talking to you. There’s always something interesting to learn in a conversation.”

While Hart doesn’t have a say in the interview lineup for While the Water Boils, she has no complaints. “Honestly, I was just very excited every time they showed me the deck of people that we had confirmed,” she says.

The marketing people at Edelman and Barilla do the choosing with the intended audience in mind. “We have behavioral data that helps us identify what millennials are passionate about,” Wadhwani explains, “and food, science, fashion and art are the things that always come up to the top of the list.” With that in mind, season four includes interviews with actor Danny Pudi, makeup artist Ve Neill and singer Jordan Fisher.

Hart interviews her While the Water Boils subjects in the sunny, open plan house in Santa Monica, California where the web series is shot. Zach Bjork, who works through Greenpoint Pictures, directs each episode. “We didn’t hire him because of his interview filming skills. In fact, we looked at other people who had a lot more of that kind of experience,” Rogers says. “We hired him for his eye because we wanted this to look beautiful and also for his ability to get authentic people on camera, people feeling real and not contrived.”

Paul Nicklen: Passion for Conservation | While the Water Boils Ep9

Hart says a typical shoot day goes about 12 hours and finds her arriving at the Santa Monica house at about 6 or 7 in the morning, going into hair and makeup and then talking to Bjork about the goals of the interview. “I casually introduce myself to the person [I am interviewing], but I don’t talk to them too much because I want to get it all on camera,” Hart says.

The first half of the day is spent on the main interview in the house, and the second half of the day is focused on the cooking portion of the episode and performing an activity with her subject—like visiting seals with Nicklen and playing guitar with Fisher.

“One of the fascinating things about her was watching her kind of develop a different sort of chemistry with each one of our guests, and she does it with everyone in such a unique way,” Rogers says. “Part of it is that she’s self-effacing, and she likes to goof around, and so she immediately puts everyone at ease.”

Wadhwani says Hart also has an emotional intelligence that works in her favor. “Our guests may not have quite known what they were walking into and might have been a little skeptical at first, but Hannah was fantastic. She connects with them, making them feel comfortable enough to tell their stories,” Wadhwani says. “You could tell she did her own research because she was really, truly, genuinely engaged with each and every person.”

“Paul and I really bonded,” Hart says, referring to Nicklen. “He invited me to go to Alaska and go deep sea whatever-ing with him at the end of the interview, and I was like, ‘Aw, thank you, Paul!’ And we still talk on Instagram.”

Other subjects surprised Hart with revelations she didn’t expect. To wit: Sykes talked about having worked for the NSA (National Security Administration) prior to becoming a star. “I was like, ‘What?’ ” Hart recalls. “Hearing her talk about trying to do standup in the midst of having this full-time, salaried job and taking maps, physical maps, and driving through backwoods counties in Virginia to go to these dive bars to do standup shows, to do open little mics and stuff like that… It really showed—and I hate to overplay the word—but there’s no other place that could have come from but than a place of passion for her craft.”