All the sales growth and deal making in the food business these days seems to be in products that are health-oriented, organic or natural.

And then, there's Totino's.

When General Mills earlier this year told investors it had sorted out its huge portfolio of products between steady performers and fast growers, it put its Totino's frozen pizza and snack roll brand in the second group.

It looked out of place next to some good-for-your-health brands like Annie's. But General Mills, rather than glossing over Totino's image, is recasting the narrative and aiming it at 20- and 30-something consumers who don't like being pandered to through traditional advertising.

To reach these skeptical young buyers, the marketing team has pushed many boundaries at General Mills, a 150-year-old company fiercely protective of its products' reputations.

"There have been times in the building where I have had to pitch ideas where I thought, 'I am totally going to get fired today,' " said Brad Hiranaga, director of marketing at Totino's.

That discomfort is due to Totino's new image as an irreverent and at times absurd brand that is cozying up to young people through the digital channels they use.

Totino's pizza rolls are the bestselling frozen snack and appetizer in U.S. retail stores, controlling more than 26 percent of the segment. General Mills sold more than $530 million of pizza rolls in the previous year ending Oct. 2, according to IRI, a Chicago-based research firm. Meanwhile, Totino's frozen pizzas were the third-most popular frozen pizza during the same period — trailing Nestlé SA's DiGiorno and Schwan Food Co.'s Red Baron — with $360.8 million in sales.

Many of Totino's target consumers have memories of eating pizza rolls as a kid. But the brand got its start in 1951 in northeast Minneapolis when Rose and Jim Totino helped bring Italian food and pizza to Minnesota for the first time.

The small family restaurant with red- and white-checked tablecloths, bistro tables and red vinyl booths was an immediate success. By 1962, the Totino family built a frozen pizza plant in Fridley to meet the increasing U.S. appetite for convenient meals. Rose sold the business in 1975 to Pillsbury, which later was bought by General Mills. Today, nearly a million Totino's pizzas are sold in the U.S. every day.

Sales grew between 3 percent and 5 percent in fiscal year 2014 and 2015 but saw a small 1.6 percent decline in fiscal year 2016, which ended in May. General Mills said that is due to new competition in the frozen snack category.

In the last two years, the company pivoted its marketing of Totino's products from parents to young adults. The brand has resonated with this large consumer group not by overtly pitching its products, but by interacting with them in ridiculous and lighthearted ways that defy traditional advertising.

"When we decided to go after that millennial audience, we saw thousands of people were making fun of the product on social media, being irreverent, but having fun," said Caio Correa, marketing manager for Totino's."We realized, they were talking to us, but we weren't talking to them."

The team started interacting with these online conversations by retweeting funny comments about Totino's, creating memes out of snarky hashtags and distributing self-effacing content. Last fall, Totino's developed a campaign around this approach, called "Live free, couch hard."

"We started to see the passion points, which were things like show streaming, gaming, binge-watching Netflix, and we started to create content around those things and targeting the folks when they were doing this," Correa said.

Much of their content was inspired by what the consumers were telling Totino's, Hiranaga said, "Our fans love that. They see there is truth in it, in the self-awareness that Totino's has."

Saturday Night Live, with comedian Larry David, produced several skits poking fun at Totino's and football fans, which tickled the team at General Mills. Comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who have a large following online, created a video ode to Totino's pizza rolls that has been viewed 1.1 million times on YouTube.

General Mills partnered with Twitch, the world's top platform and community for video-gamers, on Super Bowl Sunday last year for a Totino's Bucking Couch event. The gist: Fans watched celebrity gamers play video games while viewers controlled the motion of the mechanical couch the gamer was sitting on.

General Mills isn't alone in this new way of marketing food. Peter Nicholson, chief creative officer of Minneapolis-based advertising firm Periscope, recently helped lead a campaign for Trolli gummy worms that harnessed basketball superstar James Harden's love of the product. Harden plugged the gummy worms on his massively influential Snapchat account in his own strange, signature way.

"These platforms have rules in how you function in them and if you don't act in that way, then it's not going to be as successful," Nicholson said. "You're on their ground, so you have to act in a way that's appropriate for that space. You can't hijack the content."

Not every brand can be so playful, he said, and it requires a different mentality and more hands-on approach.

"When [the users] choose to engage, you have to continue to engage with them. You'll lose them if you bail on them," Nicholson said. "They'll want to continue to have social media involvement because they've given you permission. It can't be one-way communication."

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767