April 22nd, 2011
How Kraft's Lunchables Is Evolving in the Anti-Obesity Era
Not long ago, it seemed that Oscar Mayer Lunchables—that king of kids’ lunches—had finally met its match. Scorned by health critics and challenged by other brands, sales flattened throughout the 2000s, leaving some to wonder if the portable processed lunch would survive. “Have Lunchables become uncool?” read one headline in 2005.
Six years later, the 23-year-old Kraft Foods brand is not only surviving, but thriving, winning where it counts in this category—the school lunch table. Critics are still complaining, for sure. In what looks to be a nod to those voices, Lunchables is pouring millions of dollars behind healthier varieties. The brand—which once partnered with Taco Bell, and as recently as 2009 sold a calorie-packed line called “Maxed Out”—is now touting a line extension filled with Dole fruit, which will be backed with what Kraft calls the largest ad campaign ever for the brand.
The more than $20 million effort, led by Dentsu’s McGarryBowen, Chicago, is timed with the start of spring-field-trip season and features kids showing off “orange peel grins.” Plans include TV and print ads, including a six-page spread in the royal-wedding issue of People magazine that Kraft estimates will have a 3.7 million circulation, as well as digital storefronts in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. On one day in May, Kraft is planning what it says is the first coordinated media buy on Times Square, with every digital video billboard plugging Lunchables. The campaign will nearly match what Lunchables spent on measured media all of last year ($25.3 million, according to Kantar Media).
Kraft says Lunchables finished 2010 with its best-ever sales and growth trends. And the momentum seems to be continuing this year, as dollar sales jumped 11.56% to $569 million in the year ended March 20, with the brand commanding nearly 70% of the refrigerated meat, cheese, cracker and dessert category, according to SymphonyIRI, which does not include Walmart.
The growth comes even as efforts against childhood obesity gain steam, with luminaries such as First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver making well-publicized calls for healthier eating at school. But Lunchables is still “all about the ‘fun’—and as a result kids eat it,” food industry analyst Phil Lempert, who runs Supermarketguru.com, said in an email. “Kids love the size of the foods and feel that it is for them vs. what mom makes,” he said. Parents “will be assured that their kids won’t trade the lunch for something else.”
“This is something consumers have been requesting and we’re listening,” said Lunchables brand manager Mindee Elam. “Fruit is the number one requested item that mom is already adding to the brown-bag lunch,” she said. “It makes perfect sense ... for us to include that in our product.”
But while health advocates give the brand credit for evolving, they say Lunchables is still not doing enough. The fruit versions range from 280 calories to 440 calories and 8 grams to 12 grams of fat, while other versions on store shelves have even higher fat contents, like a pepperoni pizza variety with 20 fat grams and a list of ingredients 402 words long. (A Big Mac, for comparison, has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat.)
“While I’m happy to see fruit in general on a kid’s lunch tray, I feel a little bit like that is perhaps drawing in a parent more to think, ‘Oh, this is good for my kid,’ when in fact it is still an accompaniment to an unhealthful meal that is chock-full of chemicals and sugar,” said Susan Levin, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition education for the Cancer Project, a nutrition education and research group, who reviewed the “Lunchables with Fruit” product line for Ad Age. The line, which builds on a previous limited rollout of fruit varieties, includes cups of Dole mandarin oranges and pineapple bits paired with varieties including peanut butter and jelly, pizza, and crackers with turkey, ham and cheese.