It's a sticky business

Cracker Jack's associate product manager "missed the Pok

Published July 19, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Cracker Jack associate product manager Don Helms, who spoke at the seventh annual Cracker Jack Collectors Association Convention in June, appeared a little pooped after only four months on the brand for Frito-Lay.

A few minutes into his presentation, everyone started to understand why. Although 96 percent of adults in America, when asked "Can you name a brand of caramel popcorn?" will reply "Cracker Jack," only 6 percent of kids will. According to Helms, who has run lots of focus groups, kids see Sailor Jack on the box and think, "Who's this old dude in a weird outfit?"

As if resuscitating C.J.'s icon trademark status isn't enough of a challenge, Helms must compete with constant additions to the "sweet popcorn" segment of the snack market, like microwaveable caramel-flavored popcorn -- and this segment itself is declining. Cracker Jack and Doritos are both part of the Frito-Lay family of products, but Doritos outsells C.J. 2-to-1.

Of course, a bag of Doritos doesn't have a prize in it. Helms came to the brand during the Pokémon bust. "We missed the boat on Pokémon," he admits. Helms wants to target the toys more toward 10-year-olds than 6-year-olds. He's got livelier paper prizes in the works, not just more stickers and tattoos, and continues developing 3-D toys for larger packages and special promotions.

And Helms is starting to tinker with the product. At the time of the convention, shoppers in the test market area of Minneapolis could pick up three new C.J. flavors. In the past, C.J. has regularly tried adding different snacks to the line. "Butter Toffee" still appears in a fifth of all stores where C.J. is sold. The newer products are geared primarily toward kids: the eye-popping "Zany Watermelon," marshmallow "Frosted Popcorn Crunch" and "Dazzlin' Blue Raspberry." The adults at the CJCA Convention weren't overwhelmed when Helms passed around bags for members to sample. One woman turned down an offered handful of Raspberry saying, "I don't eat blue food."

With this sort of reaction, it's no surprise Helms is looking elsewhere for new C.J. fans. C.J. will soon premiere in Mexico.

At the end of every day, two problems remain unsolved, as they always have. If German immigrant Louis Rueckheim could figure out a recipe to keep the candy-coated popcorn and peanuts from sticking together in 1896, and if America could land a man on the moon in 1969, why can't Helms keep the peanuts from falling to the bottom of the package and make sure everyone always finds a prize inside?

By Pegi Taylor

Pegi Taylor is a writer, educator and art model in Milwaukee.

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