Cracker Jack gets Jack'D for millennials

Frito-Lay marketers go '90s extreme to get younger customers while messing with the original peanuts-and-popcorn mix.

By Jason Notte May 1, 2013 2:57PM
CRACKER JACK®'D Clusters Salted Caramel Flavored Popcorn Clusters (© FRITO-LAY NORTH AMERICA, INC.)In the late '80s and early '90s, focus groups drove a marketing trend with one word that causes Gen Xers to cringe with gray-haired embarrassment: Extreme.

Branded In The 80s has preserved examples of products from Mead Trapper Keeper school organizers to Levi's Jeans and Donruss baseball cards that got the "extreme" treatment. Gaming site 1UP saved just about every "extreme" '90s video-game ad. Yum Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell served up Extreme Nachos and Burger King (BKW) hired bungee-jumping MTV Sports host Dan Cortese to pitch extreme meat loaf and table service.

The Simpsons put the exclamation point on the whole thing back in 1997 when it devoted an entire episode to focus-grouping a skateboarding, shades-wearing dog named Poochie to boost "The Itchy and Scratchy Show's" ratings.

Roughly 20 years past this idea's freshness date, extreme branding is back on shelves, thanks to PepsiCo (PEP), its snack subsidiary Frito-Lay and a new line of the venerable Cracker Jack peanut-and-popcorn mix called Cracker Jack'D that just launched Tuesday. It's "Jack'D" because hardcore flavors like "Spicy Pizzeria," "Cocoa Java" and "Salted Caramel" -- which is essentially what the original Cracker Jack flavor was in the first place -- are what all the kids are into, according to the decidedly nonkid members of Frito-Lay's marketing department.

Frito-Lay's marketers think millennials aren't flocking to Cracker Jack because it "isn't relevant to them" and they "want more intense flavors and a wider variety of textures."

There may be a kernel of truth to what the snack company pitching sriracha and chicken-and-waffles flavors of Lay's chips is saying, but Frito-Lay was PepsiCo's profit leader in 2012 and saw its take climb 1% last year to $3.6 billion. Those gains weren't boosted by piles of one-off chip flavors, but by old standbys like Doritos, which brought in bags of new cash for Frito-Lay by making its traditional Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch flavors the backbone of Taco Bell's Doritos Locos tacos.

Much as PepsiCo sucked in consumers with '70s-style throwback bags for its taco-flavored Doritos chips and with its original sugar-based formula and retro cans for Pepsi Throwback, the company is hedging its bets here by keeping original Cracker Jack intact as well.

Focus groups wrought havoc on original-recipe Cracker Jack as well, as anyone who has dug around a pile of caramel-coated popcorn in search of a peanut can tell you. Frito-Lay is updating the original formula and yielding to baby boomers' demands for more peanuts and new prizes inside. Those new prizes have been modernized a bit and now include codes for Google (GOOG) Android apps for "nostalgic" games like baseball and pinball.

Innovation is the key to freshness for any brand. But pandering, blush-worthy missteps like Campbell's millennial-targeted Go! Soups lampooned by Stephen Colbert and Cracker Jack'D caffeine-laced flavors that have already come under fire from The Center For Science In The Public Interest just reek of overreach.

It's a transparent tactic as dated as Hypercolor heat-sensitive T-shirts and Crystal Pepsi, and it's still a tough sell.

More on moneyNOW

May 1, 2013 4:15PM
Well I stooped buying cracker jacks for the simple reason they got cheap and don't have the peanutes in the packages like back in the early days. There are other brands that have 50%/50% still so why buy cracker jacks. Besides my grandaughter says the prise inside sucks and she only 9 yrs. old. Does that tell them something?
May 1, 2013 6:00PM
When I was young I got a real working Harmonica (tiny) made out of real metal. Thats why people bought them. Now you get a peice of cardboard with a cheaply printed joke on it that would make no one laugh.
May 1, 2013 4:37PM
Yep-the lack of peanuts did it for me too.  They're not the same anymore.
May 1, 2013 6:51PM
I bought a box of CJs yesterday and found 5 peanuts in the box.
Keep the damn worthless prize and give me some peanuts !!!
May 1, 2013 8:13PM
Frito Lay did not ruin the CJ's.  Mllion Mothers Society and every one like it did.  Children are not allowed to be children anymore.  Someone else must watch out for my kids because I let them play in the dirt and have a good time doing it.  I don't know how many times I have been told that they should be doing something useful!  These people are afraid that there kids might put a small toy in there mouths, thousands of kids did and are still here, they are afraid that they may hurt themselves playing games, thousands of kids di and are still here, and they are afraid that if they can't tell every parent  how to raise there kids they will become irrevelent, which to me they already are. Enjoy your kids, raise them your way and tell these people to STFU !!!!
May 1, 2013 6:51PM
Once Cracker Jacks CHANGED, I stopped buying them. Never, ever mess with something that is not broke or needs repair. The end. 
May 1, 2013 6:32PM
I miss the peanuts also, been buying cracker jacks the past 50 years or so. Without the peanuts they are just "Crapper Jacks". Not wasting my money on the plain cheap-o recipe and crappy prize which has become just a simple folded paper nothing, bring back the peanuts and decent  prize like back in the good old days.
May 1, 2013 6:37PM

Wow, Cracker Jack.  This still is my favorite snack and I'm 62 years old.  I agree with all of the comments here about its being lame and not stocking enough peanuts like in the old days.  And the prizes really stink.  Who wants a stupid sticker?  Cracker Jack prizes were little miniature dolls, figurines, games, etc.  But we must remember that we now live in a litigious society and the little ones might choke on the toys.  Maybe that's why they're limiting the amount of peanuts, too? 


May 1, 2013 5:41PM

A friend told me that his dad slit open a cracker jacks box and removed the prize packet...carefully slit that open as well and replaced the cheapo prize with a real engagement ring for his mom!  This was in the late 60's I guess :)

May 1, 2013 6:57PM

I have a hard time finding them in stores...? Now they are overpriced, have fewer peanuts, and have

something  stupid for the  prize...Their problems have NOTHING to do with the product Name...

May 1, 2013 6:55PM
Cracker Jacks 2013...
another example of American Greed
May 1, 2013 10:58PM
The answer is simple, put more peanuts in each package! There are plenty of other carmel corn products on the market, but what makes Cracker Jacks unique are the peanuts. Does it really take a think tank to realize this?
May 1, 2013 7:41PM
They cheapened it and RUINED it - so no bringing it back pal !!!  You got GREEDY and so nuts to you !!!
May 1, 2013 11:02PM
I sure hope someone with some decision making authority at Frito-Lay sees these posts!
May 1, 2013 5:12PM
What a bunch of cracker jacks!!!!!!
May 1, 2013 9:48PM

Some times our memories and nostalgia are right on but left behind by some marketing wizard who thinks he has a better idea but only kills the brand and the company in the process.  Go see JCP if you want to see the latest idiot running a company into the ground in a hurry.



May 2, 2013 6:28AM
I remember as a kid buying Cracker Jacks hoping that this is the box that had that tin whistle in it. Now the prize is a joke in itself and there are no peanuts in the box, WANT BETTER SALES!!! PUT THE PEANUTS BACK IN THE BOX AND PRIZES LIKE YOU USE TO HAVE!!!!!
May 1, 2013 11:40PM
Got to agree with the rest. When corporate ceo's got ahold of CJ they ruined it. Less peanuts=more profits. Its just the way they do it now. Less for more, its the business practice used today. Its whats helped drive this country down the crapper.Greed over quality.
May 1, 2013 11:05PM
Do I hear echoes of Hostess?????  Why do they not look to Zippo?.....same basic changes....still work just fine and they still fix it for free.  Has everyone gone crazy?  Time to head for the hills...........................................
May 2, 2013 2:42PM
say it isn't so... wish they still had something other than a sticker in the box... think a decent "prize" would get more kids to buy them,,, I know that was my motivation 50 or so years ago...
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