“Slim Jim needs to grow up.”
The words, spoken by Conagra Brands CEO Sean Connolly at a recent investors meeting at the company’s Chicago headquarters, marked a declaration to reinvigorate a brand that’s spanned at least seven decades.
The maturation of Slim Jim is serious business. The second largest brand in a growing meat snacks category, Slim Jim is projected to bring in about $575 million in sales this year, up 35 percent from $425 million in 2012. But Conagra executives know they’re leaving meat stick money on the table. As consumers of the elongated tubed jerky grow older, they mostly leave it behind.
“The Slim Jim stick is a fun status badge when you’re a teenager, but I don’t see many young men walking into the office chewing on a stick,” said Bob Nolan, Conagra’s senior vice president of insights and analytics.
And so, like food and beverage companies across the industry, Conagra is hoping to spruce up an old brand in hopes of appealing to today’s consumers, many of whom are willing to pay more for food and drink they consider to be natural, healthy, sustainably sourced and generally higher in quality. Other older brands, ranging from Milwaukee’s Best beer to Kraft Mac & Cheese, are going through similar updates that attempt to make them more relevant to today’s consumers.
This is how brands survive. What once stocked your grandparents’ cupboard may also fill yours, albeit with a few different ingredients and marketing buzzwords.
“As long as you get distribution and keep the brand in front of consumers, most of these products will have a good long run,” said Joel Whalen, academic director of DePaul University’s Center for Sales Leadership.
In times of social and economic uncertainty, consumers buy products with nostalgic ties to their past, Whalen said.
If true, the table appears set for a Slim Jim growth spurt. Lower-calorie, lower-saturated-fat Slim Jim turkey sticks are now available in stores. (The original sticks are made with a combination of beef, pork and chicken.)
And possibly by next winter, Slim Jim Black will make its grand entrance. The multiserving packages will feature smaller, more discreet sticks made with higher quality meat, more upscale attributes and more contemporary flavors, Nolan said. Nothing’s final yet — the product is still being developed — but the meat might be sourced from grass-fed, antibiotic-free animals, Nolan said.
Conagra wants those teenage boys — the core consumer group for the brand — to stay with Slim Jim as they get older. And for good reason: The savory snack category is projected to represent $45.9 billion in U.S. retail sales and has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 2.8 percent over the past five years, according to data from Euromonitor International.
For some, the words “Slim Jim” may evoke memories of late night jaunts to the 7-Eleven during their teen years. But Nolan said Conagra’s consumer research showed that consumers still think fondly of the brand. They just need it to be more pertinent to their grown-up lives.
“Slim Jim’s not quite as relevant as you start to age up,” Nolan said. “Just like the beer you drank in college may not be what you drink as you get older.”
Milwaukee’s Best beer, a cheap beer of advanced age seemingly left behind amid the proliferation of craft beer in recent years, is going through transformation as well. Like Conagra and Slim Jim, Chicago-based MillerCoors is determined to invest in Milwaukee’s Best and make it more relevant to today’s consumers.
In this case, that means improving the value for the beer’s core consumers, not necessarily appealing to millennials, said Ryan Marek, marketing director for MillerCoors’ economy brands. First brewed in 1895, Milwaukee’s Best appeals primarily to men over the age of 45.
MillerCoors recently rolled out more modernized packaging for all Milwaukee’s Best beer and increased the alcohol content for Milwaukee’s Best Ice and lager — part of a broader plan to stabilize declining sales in the company’s economy segment, which also includes Miller High Life, Keystone Ice and Hamm’s.
For Miller High Life, first brewed in 1903, part of the turnaround plan is to appeal to millennials’ affinity for a good heritage story through new marketing.
“We’re investing in the (economy) segment because, frankly, it’s there. We haven’t done right by these brands in a long time. This is an effort show them more respect and to do right,” Marek said.
Sometimes it’s necessary to breathe new life into aging brands.
Take, for example, Kraft Mac & Cheese, which turns 80 next year. Long the stalwart of the category and go-to weeknight dinner for generations of children, the old blue box had in recent years lost some market share to the upstart Annie’s Mac and Cheese.
But then last year, Kraft Heinz announced it would remove artificial colors and preservatives from its iconic product in 2016 without giving a specific timeline. And then, from last December to March, Kraft sold more than 50 million boxes of the reformulated product before telling anyone the change had been made.
“We wanted it to be a pleasant surprise,” said Jessica Gilbertson, head of marketing for meals at Kraft Heinz.
The update of Slim Jim’s decades-old brand probably won’t be a surprise. Adolph “Al” Levis, a Philadelphia native, first made Slim Jim as a bar snack in the 1940s, according to Levis’ 2001 obit in The New York Times. But a Conagra spokeswoman said company records had 1928 as the year of Slim Jim’s birth.
No matter. As Connolly said, it’s time for him to grow up. Does that mean organic meat sticks? Might we see grass-fed Slim Jim selling in Whole Foods someday?
Ultimately, the consumers will decide.
“We’re trying to look upstream more than we ever have in the past,” Nolan said.