Not the usual baloney

Food marketing is a nasty business. It has very little to do with nutrition. And has everything to do with creating profitable new products geared to their best customers. Who else but a marketing guru would come up with a “Lunchable”? It doesn’t even sound like a food product. But it rakes in billions of dollars for Oscar Mayer.

I read about the “birth” of the Lunchable in a recent New York Times article. Apparently, the move toward these prepackaged lunch boxes began about 30 years ago. That’s when things looked like they might get tough for Oscar Mayer. Up until that point, hot dogs and bologna had been Oscar Mayer’s bread and butter, so to speak.

But in the 1980s, things began to change. Meat consumption fell more than 10 percent as fat became synonymous with cholesterol, clogged arteries, heart attacks, and strokes.

And Oscar Mayer began to worry.

The company’s executives faced enormous pressure from their new bosses at Philip Morris. And the execs at Phillip Morris faced pressures of their own because of the government’s quasi-scientific war against smoking.

To reclaim their market, Oscar Mayer set out to find a way to “reposition” bologna and other processed meats.

But instead of trying to change how Americans felt about processed meat (which many even call “lunch meat”), they set out to change how Americans felt about lunch. They realized that the most pressing issue about lunch was time. And the lack of it.

Like never before, the 1980s ushered in the era of the “liberated” working mom. And these women were busier than ever. Oscar Mayer focused on these women and learned about their morning crush. Their dash to get breakfast on the table. And lunches packed. And kids out the door.

To address the time issue, Oscar Mayer came up with a convenient prepackaged lunch. It instantly solved a mother’s morning rush. And, conveniently enough, it contained the company’s sliced bologna and ham.

Initially, the company wanted to add bread. But this presented a problem. Bread does not stay fresh for the two months their new product needed to sit in warehouses or in grocery coolers. The company landed on dry crackers instead.

Adding cheese to the package was the next obvious addition. But natural cheese crumbles and doesn’t slice. So they moved to processed varieties. Like American. This could bend and be sliced. Plus, it would last forever. Like plastic. Just check your local landfill. And it would save them two cents on each unit.

And remember, the 1980s was also the era of mergers and acquisitions. In 1989, Phillip Morris acquired Kraft Foods. It then merged Kraft with Oscar Mayer and solved another cost dilemma. The company  got all the processed cheese it wanted from its new sister company. And–they got it at cost.

After trying a number of packaging styles, Oscar Mayer fell back on what worked. They settled on a rectangle tray filled with food and packaged with cardboard. Think of it as the updated American TV dinner. Except they called it a Lunchable.

The Lunchable trays flew off the grocery store shelves. In addition to solving the mothers’ problems, Lunchables appealed to kids. As the CEO of Kraft later put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”

This idea–that kids are in control–would become a key concept in Oscar Mayer’s evolving marketing campaigns.

The early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but good moms loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift.

But soon the focus swung to marketing directly to kids.

Saturday morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say. But lunchtime is all yours.”

The next question was how to expand the franchise.

Oscar Mayer did just that by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: when in doubt, add sugar.

Soon you found the Lunchable with Dessert on shelves. The dessert Lunchable then morphed into the Lunchable Fun Pack. This came with a Snickers bar, a package of M&Ms, or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. And don’t forget the drink. The Lunchables Fun Pack also came with a sugary drink.

The Lunchables team started out using Kool-Aid and cola. But  then it switched to Capri Sun after Philip Morris smartly added that drink to its stable of brands.

Eventually, Oscar Mayer released a line of the trays appropriately called “Maxed Out.” It had as many as nine grams of saturated fat. That’s nearly an entire day’s recommended maximum for kids. It also contained up to two-thirds of the max for sodium and 13 teaspoons of sugar.

To be fair, Oscar Mayer did try to add more healthful ingredients. They experimented with fresh carrots, which are high in beta-carotene but little else. They also tried to develop new versions, featuring mandarin oranges and pineapple slices. Oscar Mayer promoted these healthy versions with “fresh fruit.” But these healthy versions contained more than 70 ingredients, including sucrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and fruit concentrate all in the same “meal.”

Plus, the healthier versions sold poorly, so the company scrapped them.

Soon Oscar Mayer really started to branch out in other ways. They tried Beef Taco Lunchables. Hot Dog Lunchables. Mini Burger Lunchables. And the runaway hit, the Pizza Lunchable.

Eventually, more than 60 varieties of Lunchables and other brands of trays would show up in grocery stores. In 2007, Kraft even tried a Lunchables Jr. for three- to five-year-olds.

Today, annual sales continue to climb and now approach the $1 billion mark.

When it comes to providing healthful foods, this story provides one example of why most of the food industry remains happily “out to lunch.” Sadly, parents who buy these Lunchables for their kids are out to lunch too. It teaches kids not to put any time–or thought–into selecting, preparing and eating food.

So–today is Friday. A day many of us go out to lunch. But take a few extra minutes today and make a healthy lunch. It will be worth your time.