Bob Nolan, senior vice president of insights and analytics at Slim Jim, says what works for tenn-agers rarely appeals to older customers. (Kristen Norman / Chicago Tribune)

Popular youth brands must age gracefully to survive

lim 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. 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 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 forproducts they consider to be healthy, sustainably sourced and higher in quality.

Other older brands, ranging from Milwaukee’s Best beer to Kraft Mac &Cheese, are going through similar updates.

It is a matter of survival.

“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 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.

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 Euromonitor International.

Overdue for updates

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 seemingly left behind amid a proliferation of craft beers, is going through transformation as well.

Like Conagra and Slim Jim, MillerCoors is determined to invest in Milwaukee’s Best and make it relevant to today’s consumers.

In this case, that means improving the value for core consumers — men over the age of 45 — not necessarily appealing to millennials, said Ryan Marek, marketing director for MillerCoors’ economy brands.

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.

“We’re investing in the (economy) segment because, frankly, it’s there. We haven’t done right by these brands in a long time,” Marek said.

Kraft Mac &Cheese, which turns 80 next year, is another traditional brand scheduled for an update. Long a go-to weeknight dinner for generations of children, the old blue box has been losing some market share.

But Kraft Heinz — unannounced — removed artificial colors and preservatives from its iconic product. And it 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.

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