One of the joys of working at an ad agency has been finally getting someone to foot the bill for my subscription to Brandweek. At $149 a year, Brandweek is not cheap; but few other magazines cover the Kremlinology of salty-snack land with such single-minded, Woodward-and-Bernstein intensity. If you long for news about the cranberry glut, crave a preview of the new Toaster Strudel positioning, or if you just like to ogle centerfolds of dripping cheese lasagna, golden-brown drumsticks and succulent Sunkist oranges spewing jets of nectar, then this Baedeker's of brand building might be for you.
I love almost everything Brandweek does, but several weeks ago, the magazine published its best article yet. Titled "It's Good to Be Jerky," the article reported that beef jerky had changed its image, and was now seen as "a healthful snack for on-the-go urban professionals." Resounding confirmation of jerky's surge came from no fewer than four meat-snack professionals. "People's minds have already changed about beef jerky," Alan Bridgeford, president of Bridgeford Foods, told Brandweek. James Sampson, marketing manager for Frito Lay's Oh Boy! Oberto jerky, went a step further, vowing: "If you eat our jerky, you'll get past your problems." Yet a third meat-snack executive confirmed the writer's suspicion that jerky "has arrived."
Was the New Jerky a legitimate cultural phenomenon or mere wishful thinking by jerky-mongering corporate executives? To find out, I called Sampson. What had Sampson meant, I wondered, when he told Brandweek, "If you eat our jerky, you'll get past your problems"?
"I'm sure [the reporter] quoted me accurately, but I can't remember saying that," he tells me. "That is honestly not my belief. My belief is, if you've got problems, you should seek professional help."
Sampson took pains to emphasize that, in his view, there's "a hard road ahead" for jerky. "We want to convince people that this thing they never think about is actually a viable snacking alternative," he says. At the same time, he says, he needs to get folks to stop thinking about Slim Jims. "Right now, if people think jerky, they think Slim Jim," he says. "And we're not that. We're this other thing."
There is, as Sampson explained to me, a kind of natural order of jerky. At the bottom of the barrel is the humble meat stick -- high in fat, so-so in protein and made up of bits of the anatomy of animals that most people would prefer not to eat. "Think about a meat stick," Sampson muses. "It is highly processed. It has a large amount of stuff in it. You can't quite be sure what they put in there. They grind up beef. They grind up chicken ... They put a number of different species in there." Sampson points me toward the ingredients stated on a Slim Jim. "You'll notice that the second ingredient listed is something called 'mechanically separated chicken.' Now, I'm not going to get into how the chicken is separated. Let's just say that it's a pretty interesting process. But, as terrible as it is, it gives the product its mouth feel."
Next up the ladder of meat-snack evolution is "chopped-and-formed jerky," a segment that Sampson finds difficult to explain. "Basically, it's a re-formed stick of beef or a re-formed stick of turkey," he says. "It's finely ground meat, with a relatively high amount of fat, re-formed into something that looks like beef jerky." But what is it, exactly? "All I can say is it's been significantly changed," Sampson says. "It was once something. But it's not that anymore."
Up a notch from chopped-and-formed is something called beefsteak jerky. "Imagine taking a piece of natural-style jerky and grinding it up," Sampson says. "Then, imagine re-forming that into a stick or bar. It's a quarter-inch thick. It's naturally low in fat ... That's your beefsteak jerky."
At the meat-snack summit is natural-style jerky, such as that made by Oh Boy! Oberto. Natural-style jerky is low in fat, high in protein and made from whole cuts of beef. "This is the premium segment of the category," Sampson says. "You take whole-muscle meat. You marinate it. You slice it in a drying house."
"Then you grind it up?" I guessed.
"No," Sampson says. "You don't grind it up. You package it, just the way it is. It's natural-style jerky. It's as close as you get to unadulterated meat."
Alas, these distinctions are too often lost on the jaded East Coast palate. "We do better out West," says Alison Melody, account director at Suissa Miller, Oberto's advertising agency. "What we've found is that on the East Coast, jerky is still not perceived as a mainstream snack food."
Several months ago, the intrepid Oh Boy! team headed to New York in hopes of changing that perception. "We were just reaching out and trying to understand the jerky market," Sampson says. "Trying to get people talking about how jerky might fit into their lives." Unfortunately, the discussion got off to a rocky start. Respondents said things like, "It's roadkill, it's got to be roadkill," Sampson laments. "Or, 'I'd never put that in my mouth.'"
Happily, Sampson believes this consumer antipathy is not insuperable. "It turns out more people eat jerky than we think," he says. "There's this constant search going on within the snacking category, which we call 'The Search for Snacking Alternatives.' And it's interesting what happens when you put people in a group setting. If one confesses, they all confess."
"There are definitely a lot of eaters out there," Melody says. "It's not just the kids eating it. It's the husband eating it. It's the wife eating it. We call them 'closet consumers.'" (Later, I was to find out that one of these closet consumers is Salon's very own book editor Laura Miller.)
Now that the closet consumers have been smoked out, the next step, Melody says, is "actually getting [them] to acknowledge publicly that jerky is a compelling snacking option." Toward that end, Oh Boy! Oberto has invested in a $7 million advertising campaign, revolving around the antics of a jerky-obsessed septuagenarian, "Grandma Oberto." In the campaign, Grandma races a mountain bike, jumps out of an airplane and rappels down the face of a cliff, all for the glories of Oberto jerky. "Grandma Oberto is doing active things," Sampson says. "What we're trying to communicate is that the product is highly portable."
But teenagers are unlikely to be weaned off their Slim Jims by the charms of Grandma Oberto alone. To accomplish that task, the Frito Lay contingent is turning to opposition research. "We've done focus groups with Slim Jim users," Sampson says. "We've asked them, 'Do you know what you're actually eating?' 'Nope, I never read the ingredients statement.' 'Well,' we say, 'why don't you take a look at that?'"
To the consternation of Sampson and his team, the Slim Jim loyalists turn out to be a pretty stoical crew. "They didn't seem too bothered by it," Sampson says. "Maybe one or two would ask, 'What's mechanically separated chicken?' 'What do you think it is,' the moderator was instructed to reply. People tended to draw pictures of a chicken carcass flying at a jet engine," Sampson says wearily.
Informed of the true provenance of mechanically separated chicken, respondents "would get very quiet," Sampson says. "You could kind of see them working it through their heads."
"Does that bother you?" the moderator asked. Inevitably, Sampson says, the answer was no. "They don't care," he says. "They keep saying, 'I don't care what's in it. I recognize it as a Slim Jim.'"
My next call was to Jeff Slater, vice president of marketing for Goodmark Foods, which manufactures and distributes Slim Jims. I was curious to hear Slater's response to Sampson's description of his product as a repellent substance, counter to the dictates of common sense, good health and kindness to animals. I was surprised by his reaction. Far from getting angry, Slater seemed to positively revel in his product's noxiousness. "I mean, think of it," he says. "It's this gross stick. When you bite into it, it snaps. It's nasty. But that's OK."
"Teen boys love the product," explains Jo McKinney, account director at North Castle Partners, Slim Jim's ad agency. "They really relate to it. They think it's nasty. And it is. It's just a nasty, nasty brand. With nasty, nasty advertising to go along with it."
The ads are indeed nasty, treating viewers to a peek down the digestive tract and into the stomach, where Slim Jim Guy inevitably creates havoc. In the most recent execution, a teenage boy eats a Slim Jim and then jumps into a pool. "You're supposed to wait 30 minutes," yells Slim Jim Guy. "How about a beefy, spicy cramp?" Slim Jim Guy jumps up and down, pulling on the interior walls of the stomach, ultimately giving the boy a terrible cramp. The spot closes with Slim Jim Guy ripping through the logo and bellowing, "Eat me!"
Slim Jim Guy, McKinney says, is nothing more than "a tall, nasty piece of meat," whose antics will appeal to defiant teens. "We are targeting teenage boys, 12 to 17," she says. "At that age, you feel invincible. You want to do things that people don't approve of ... You're risking life and limb everywhere. So our product just fits in."
But canny Goodmark Foods is already looking forward. Caught up in the frenzy of this jerky moment, Goodmark is shoveling cash at all its jerky brands, including a $10 million campaign that will position its Pemmican Beef Jerky as the natural-style jerky that allows meat-snack lovers to "Survive the Day." As the teenage eater's taste buds mature, Goodmark is plotting various ways to make the transition from Slim Jim to Pemmican. There are bold new flavors, a meaty new Web site, even a redesigned, fresh-faced Indian-head logo.
Now Goodmark wants to do even more. "All of us really bring a lot of baggage to the jerky market," Slater explains. "These days, we're trying to clean-slate ourselves, and be a little more open-minded."
Uh-oh. "Jerky has never been marketed as relevant to women," McKinney says. "It's had much more of a masculine, tear-into-it image."
Now the Slim Jim team is hoping to level the playing field. "We're currently doing a lot of qualitative research with women," Slater says. "The results have been quite eye-opening. ... It turns out when women try the product, they like the product. It meets a real salt craving that they have."
The project, Slater stresses, is still in its nascent phase; and so there are limitations on what he can tell me. What he can say is that he is working with a Kansas company, New Product Insights; and that together, they are developing a new, hybrid, women-oriented meat snack that is both jerky and, somehow, not-jerky. "We've been using some nontraditional brainstorming methods, utilizing a technique called "'category transfer,'" he says. "How do you take something that's worked in one category -- and make it work in a totally different platform?"
It could be, for instance, that jerky marketers have a lot to learn from companies like Cover Girl and Maybelline. "Think about the way women buy makeup," Slater says. "Makeup is very compact. It's very small ... It's easy to fit in your purse. Now, the challenge is -- how do we take that attribute and relate it to women who don't currently use our product?"
"What does any of this have to do with jerky?" I ask, confused. "Let me put it this way," Slater says. "Think of Altoids. Now think of jerky." He pauses. "The product may be different," he says. "The packaging may be different. But the idea is the same. We're both selling portability." The curiously strong mint -- now available in kippered beef.
Whatever one thinks of Slater's presumption that the biggest obstacle to jerky consumption among females is ... the bulky packaging, his heart is certainly in the right place. And so, inspired by Slater's quest for gender equity in meat snacks, I decide to try some of the product myself. Spurning the gastrointestinal delights of Slim Jim, I opt instead for the Pemmican, two packs of which Slater has sent via FedEx. Let's see. There is Sweet Mesquite, and Spicy Teriyaki. I decide to try them both.
Guess what? They're delicious! The Sweet Mesquite is a fiery concoction, a generous medley of herbs and spices. The Spicy Teriyaki, reputed to combine a "pepper punch" with "the authentic taste of the Orient," is even better, somehow summing up in one mouthful all the mysterious pleasures of that remote continent.
My plan had been to try a little bit of jerky, then throw the rest away. But it was so good, I had to eat it all -- fast. Within two minutes, my fingers were scrabbling along the bottom of both empty bags. "I can't believe I ate all that jerky," I say to the redesigned, fresh-faced Indian head on the package. And the sage old Indian seemed to twinkle back at me, as if he'd known it all along.