There are some brands that, no matter how much the market changes, always seem to stick around.
The explanation for that, Howard Dorman a partner in the food and beverage practice at Mazars told Food Dive, is in large part thanks to their early history as first movers in the food space.
“I grew up with Hellmann's Mayonnaise and Heinz Ketchup. There was no other replacement for them at all,” he said.
In fact, he said that the brands were so ubiquitous they entered the common language as a stand-in moniker for the products they described, much like many think of Kleenex as synonymous with facial tissues.
“I think you're going to find some of these brands are going to be able to make it through. They'll still be here in 30 years in some form or fashion.”
Partner, Mazars food and beverage practice
Beyond simply arriving ahead of the pack, Dorman said that the brands that today live in the public consciousness got there because “they just marketed the crap out of it.”
Nevertheless, throwing money at an unchanged product may not be enough going forward with today's market dynamics that favor new products, innovative flavors and companies that sell their mission as well as their food. As a result, companies are revising their structures so they can include novel startups or adapt iconic brands to be more in line with consumer trends — including exotic flavor variations, clean label ingredients and more transparency.
Still, Dorman said if the brands that have been around for decades can respond to trends, they have a head start in remaining memorable — simply because of their immediate recognition with consumers.
“I think you're going to find some of these brands are going to be able to make it through," Dorman said. "They'll still be here in 30 years in some form or fashion.”
So how did America’s iconic brands get to that distinctive position, and what are they doing to withstand the test of time? Five brands spoke to Food Dive to explain.
Cracker Jack’s X-factor of the prize in every box may be partially responsible for its crackling success over the last 123 years.
However, much of the brand's popularity is also thanks to circumstance. Within the first 30 years of the snack being on the market, it went from a treat sold only on the streets of Chicago to a beloved national treasure with an inextricable association to baseball, according to the brand and Sadira Furlow, vice president of marketing for Frito-Lay North America, which has owned Cracker Jack since 1997.
The combination of molasses-coated peanuts and popcorn was a typical treat in the late 19th century. Cracker Jack reimagined the snack by packaging the blend in wax-sealed cardboard containers, allowing for mass distribution, said Furlow. Soon, Americans were so familiar with the product, vaudeville performer Jack Norworth wrote the 1908 baseball anthem “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with a reference to the snack.
“Being stewards of such an iconic brand carries great responsibility, so protecting the consistency and quality of the product inside remains a top priority.”
Vice president of marketing, Frito-Lay North America
“In the process, Cracker Jack became synonymous with America’s favorite pastime, a sport that’s built on history and tradition unlike any other,” Furlow told Food Dive in an email.
A year before the iconic song hit the airwaves, Cracker Jack first began putting prizes inside its packages. It paid off.
“People are still collecting those prizes today, which is a testament to how Cracker Jack was able to infiltrate culture and become so much more than a snack, by engaging with consumers and giving them a relevant experience that lasted long after the Cracker Jack was gone,” said Furlow.
Today those prizes — which used to be everything from coupons for sewing machines to porcelain dolls — have been replaced with QR codes that unlock digital content. The contents of the box, however, have stayed true to the brand's legacy.
“Being stewards of such an iconic brand carries great responsibility, so protecting the consistency and quality of the product inside remains a top priority,” said Furlow. “We’re confident that there will always be a place for Cracker Jack among America’s favorite snacks.”
When the blue-ribboned condiment jar first appeared at Richard Hellmann’s German deli in Manhattan in 1905, it was one of the first commercial mayonnaise brands in the United States. Today, it is the #1 mayonnaise brand, according to data from Euromonitor.
From 1905 until the blue ribbon version was trademarked, there were two recipes. One was a family recipe from Richard Hellmann's wife and the other — which became the blue ribbon recipe — was a blend that he tinkered with and marketed as a premium product. It didn't take many years before the blue ribbon mayo stood out and became the company’s namesake product.
When Unilever acquired the brand 95 years later, the blue ribbon continued to tie the brand to its roots, Benjamin Crook, senior director of dressings and condiments at Unilever told Food Dive in an email.
“Our original mayonnaise product is a classic but it’s important for us to also continue to create modern twists on that classic recipe, for example by using different oils such as avocado or olive oils, or by offering light and vegan versions.”
Senior director of dressings & condiments, Unilever
“While the logo has undergone changes over the years, the blue ribbon has been a constant feature within each iteration, which remains a key recognizable piece from the brand’s heritage,” he said.
Despite the predictable familiarity that has kept this brand afloat for more than 100 years, the brand has evolved with the times. Crook said Unilever has remained committed to what initially made people fall in love with the brand: a recipe made with eggs, oil and vinegar.
“Our original mayonnaise product is a classic, but it’s important for us to also continue to create modern twists on that classic recipe, for example by using different oils such as avocado or olive oils, or by offering light and vegan versions,” he said.
These updates have become a necessity as Hellmann’s transitioned into the 21st century and faced a consumer base demanding clean and transparent information and better-for-you ingredients. To modernize mayonnaise’s image in the consumer psyche, Hellmann’s introduced cage-free eggs into its recipe in 2017, and by 2020 plans to have all of its jars made from recycled plastic.
Fifty-five years ago, John Holahan was the vice president of General Mills and experimenting with Cheerios. He sliced up some circus peanuts — his favorite candy — added them to the mix, and the marshmallow cereal segment was born, Lucky Charms Senior Brand Manager Liz Mahler told Food Dive.
When Lucky Charms first appeared on shelves across America in 1964, there were only four marshmallows — green clovers, pink hearts, orange stars and yellow moons — in the cereal. As times changed, so did the charms. Today, Mahler said only the pink hearts are left from the early days.
The year 1975 saw the first addition of a new marshmallow: the blue diamond. Following that, permanent changes included the purple horseshoe in 1983, red balloons to celebrating the cereal’s 25th anniversary in 1989, the tri-color rainbow in 1992 and most recently, unicorns in 2018.
The marshmallows have deeper meanings than just being fun shapes, General Mills spokesperson Mike Siemienas told Food Dive.
“The marshmallows ... [were] often being associated with leprechauns, luck or magic. The purple horseshoe, in particular, appeared in a two-part commercial which added a story element to why it was added,” he said.
In fact, the horseshoe gives Lucky, the cereal’s leprechaun mascot, the power to speed things up. The rainbow allows Lucky to teleport. Blue moons offer the power of invisibility. The yellow hourglass gave Lucky the power to control time. The limited-edition crystal ball revealed Lucky’s whereabouts. This integration of the physical treats with marketing kept the cereal from becoming stagnant with any generation of kids.
The result, Mahler said, is “we're still the dominant share player and the fourth largest cereal in the category.”
“What Trix showed us is one scenario is not going to deliver what everybody wants. So we have plenty of varieties for people to choose… for people who are looking for Trix, they want it as they expect it.”
Senior brand manager, Lucky Charms
As a sugar-laden breakfasts have more recently fallen out of favor with consumers, there have been challenges for the brand.
To combat losing market share to this trend, Mahler said that General Mills has reduced the amount of sugar in the cereal instead focusing on promoting the content of whole grains and the gluten-free nature of original Lucky Charms.
However, Mahler explained that at the end of the day, General Mills trusts that consumers see Lucky Charms with its bright colors and sweetness as a treat. If there were too much change to the beloved classic, consumers would push back much like they did when General Mills replaced the artificial coloring in Trix.
“What Trix showed us is one scenario is not going to deliver what everybody wants. So we have plenty of varieties for people to choose… for people who are looking for Lucky Charms, they want it as they expect it,” she said.
When Charles Sanna died earlier this year at the age of 101, he left behind the legacy of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.
The Wisconsin dairyman is credited with inventing the first instant hot cocoa mix in the 1950s when he found himself saddled with a surplus of powdered milk from the coffee creamer he engineered for soldiers during the Korean War. He repurposed the powder and devised an instant cocoa mix by adding cocoa, sugar and vanilla to the creamer and calling it Brown Swiss, after the dairy cow variety. He sold it wholesale to airlines and restaurants.
The idea went gangbusters as consumers began pocketing packets on airline flights for later use, prompting Sanna to begin selling the product in supermarkets. By 1961, the mix had been rebranded as Swiss Miss — since the milk did not come from Brown Swiss cows — and was on many grocery store shelves, Conagra communications manager Dan Skinner told Food Dive.
“There was a Swiss Miss girl who was a Claymation figure. (She) was eye-catching and kind of a personification of the packaging at that time.”
Communications manager, Conagra Brands
Six years after Swiss Miss went to retail, Beatrice Foods bought the brand and solidified its standing as an icon. When Conagra purchased the brand in 1990, Swiss Miss was unquestionably recognizable, said Skinner.
“It probably starts in the 1970s,” he said. “There was a Swiss Miss girl who was a Claymation figure. (She) was eye-catching and kind of a personification of the packaging at that time.”
After the brand was acquired by Conagra, Skinner said the branding morphed into a more Alpine feel to evoke the heritage of both Switzerland and European chocolate. That transition, Skinner said, helped grow the brand's appeal and keep Swiss Miss at the top of the hot cocoa category. Conagra sells more than 430 million packets every year, according to Skinner.
To keep the brand alive for another generation, Swiss Miss jumped head first into innovating its products to keep pace with trends. From reinventing the brand's pudding line and its coffee and chocolate pairing in its Café Blends line to introducing fad flavors — Pumpkin Spice and Unicorn Marshmallow this fall — Swiss Miss brand manager Ericka Dirkmaat said the brand seeks to innovate indulgent treats. This approach, she said, has helped the brand fend off smaller upstart companies touting clean label or gourmet offerings.
With the brand’s only major competitor being Nestlé Hot Cocoa Mix, Dirkmaat said, the only risk to the Swiss Miss's dominance is complacency.
As the second most consumed beverage brand globally, Lipton is familiar around the globe. Although it's been under Unilever’s umbrella since 1971, the brand that is Lipton has been 125 years in the making. It was started by Sir Thomas Lipton.
“He was a self-made man whose mission was to make great quality tea available to the masses, not just the wealthy,” Laraine Miller, senior director, U.S. tea told Food Dive in an email. Lipton operated his trade business by removing the middle man and instead focusing on growing his own connections with tea producers and directly importing tea leaves from modern day Sri Lanka, which drastically reduced the cost for consumers. He was knighted in 1898.
She explained that not only did Lipton want tea to be accessible, but he wanted to offer quality. That combination of desires created a winning personality for the Lipton brand, which today is still the basis of the brand voice, said Miller.
"We’ve been around for over 125 years and will continue to create new products based on consumer needs and industry trends while maintaining what the brand has always been about: positivity and inclusivity."
Senior director, U.S. tea, Unilever
Much of the quality Lipton is known for is attributable to its packaging choices. Even before Unilever acquired the brand, Lipton was at the forefront of packaging innovation, introducing a double closure tin to protect tea from moisture in 1929. It debuted Flo-Thru bag technology for a better infusion in 1952.
Under Unilever, the brand introduced stay fresh packaging in 2015, where tea bags are foil-wrapped in stacks of 25 to help preserve the tea’s natural taste and aroma.
“We push (packaging) beyond a functional role to deliver an elevated product experience, with a mix of finishes and details to arouse the senses,” said Miller.
Today, Lipton has shifted its focus from marketing quality tea to providing healthy alternatives to other drinks. With functional offerings like turmeric and moringa tea, as well as Lipton K-cup options and iced tea powder mixes, Lipton is continuing to make teas that appeal to the masses. Similarly, through updated flavors and functional additives, Lipton is positioning its products at the forefront of promoting daily well being.
Reimagining the role of tea in a market with evolving consumer needs and industry trends is what keeps the brand going strong, Miller said.
"We’ve been around for over 125 years and will continue to create new products based on consumer needs and industry trends while maintaining what the brand has always been about: positivity and inclusivity," she said.