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  Peanut Butter Brands Spread Success   Peanut Butter Brands Spread Success  Jennifer Gidman  
         
 
Peanut Butter Brands Spread Success (For the latest developments regarding salmonella contamination in peanut butter, please visit the FDA website.)

A Truly Tasty Triumvirate
Ask people to name their favorite brand of peanut butter, and you’ll likely get a few different answers. The top three peanut butter brands in the United States, however, are clear-cut: Skippy, Jif and Peter Pan. Of course there are also the devotees of all-natural private-label brands, gourmet varieties and even other legume butters (the peanut is more closely related to the lentil bean and the pea than to members of the nut family). Let’s be honest, though: how often do you find yourself hankering for a sunflower-seed-butter sandwich?

Yes, it’s these three brands that have managed to stick around and make the most inroads into the public consciousness through effective branding strategies and, of course, a palate-pleasing product. And though they share the same legume foundation, there are definite differences in how these particular brands position themselves in the marketplace.

 
Skippy, owned by Unilever, has enjoyed commercial success since the mid-1930s. Traditionally, this brand has had a pretty solid hold on the number-two spot in the US for most of its tenure (sandwiched between leader Jif and third-place contender Peter Pan). The Skippy brand has focused on its wholesome, healthful nature: Its most famous celebrity spokesperson, Annette Funicello, served as head peanut-butter-pusher in the 1980s with her beguiling smile and a bevy of cleverly crafted TV commercials. The former Mouseketeer would deliver the “it’s hard to beat Skippy” tagline to cherub-cheeked youngsters while cutting heart-shaped peanut butter sandwiches and extolling the spread’s protein content over such sandwich stuffers as ham, bologna and tuna salad.

Over the past decade, the brand has continued along the same kid-friendly, health-conscious, fun-loving path. In the 1990s, baseball hero Derek Jeter took over as spokesperson for the brand. Skippy Squeeze Stix (think peanut butter in a push-up pop package) were introduced in 2003 as the perfect snack-on-the-go for busy families. The Skippy website (boasting the enviable peanutbutter.com URL) also features a “Kid’s Corner” section with crafts, games and a trivia section chock-full of factoids (if you’ve ever wondered what percentage of people load on the peanut butter first when making a PB&J sandwich, it’s 96 percent).

The Jif brand, owned by the J.M. Smucker Company (a brand better known, ironically, for jelly), has also made aggressive efforts to cater to its constituents, but it’s not the youngsters that are the focus of its campaigns: it’s mom. From its famous tagline (“choosy moms choose Jif”) to its website, which is obviously geared to the matriarch of the family, Jif has never made it a secret that mom’s the word when it comes to brand sales (though the company has recently used the slightly revised, more politically correct “choosy moms, and dads, choose Jif.”

The Jif website plays along with this carefully planned strategy, featuring elaborate recipes (they can even be delivered to your desktop), a “Mom Advisor” (showcasing practical advice for introducing kids to cooking, including safety tips and how to prepare a grocery list) and contests to stoke the competitive fires of every mom relegated to kitchen duty.

Sticky Situations
And then there’s Peter Pan. ConAgra’s premier peanut butter brand has typically been the least expensive in the category, appealing to the kid in you who doesn’t want to grow up while simultaneously appealing to your wallet—that is, until the summer of 2006, when a salmonella scare all but catapulted the Peter Pan brand into Neverland. Hundreds of people in nearly every state were sickened after ingesting Peter Pan peanut butter made in ConAgra’s lone peanut butter processing plant in Sylvester, Georgia (the outbreak was blamed on faulty sprinklers and a leaking roof).

Peter Pan was pulled off store shelves, and ConAgra frantically organized the brand’s relaunch—the largest investment ever in the brand. In August 2007, Peter Pan flew back into supermarkets accompanied by a direct-marketing campaign (complete with coupons for free jars), a new wider-mouthed jar and look, and even a money-back guarantee. Sounds like a stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth success story, doesn’t it?



 
The trouble is, it remains to be seen whether it’s too little too late for the Peter Pan name. We’re talking about a brand that had done little advertising in recent years, choosing instead to rely on its loyal customer base and comfortably coast along in its third-place standing. Plus, Peter Pan’s former fanatics have had to move on in the interim to other brands (J.M. Smucker reported a 40 percent increase in Q1 2008 operating income—likely not a coincidence).

And what was Peter Pan’s brand identity, anyway, other than its association with its fictional impish namesake? In trying to appeal to everyone (“Peter Pan is the smooth, creamy peanut butter that the whole family can enjoy,” the ConAgra website states), Peter Pan may have spread itself too thin. Its bare-bones website (the only one of the three major brands to not have its own dedicated URL) doesn’t offer much insight into the brand’s target audience, merely featuring a store locator, nutritional search tool for all ConAgra foods and a registration form for ConAgra newsletters and recipes.

Besides competing with each other, all the peanut butter brands have had to contend with another, more far-reaching factor that affects the category as a whole: peanut allergies. The proliferation of peanut- and nut-related allergies (or perhaps just an enhanced awareness of them) has led airlines to stop serving snack packs of nuts in-flight and caused schools to declare themselves “nut free.” Since even a trace amount of peanuts can cause a dangerous anaphylactic reaction in the most severely afflicted, the days of the PB&J dominating schoolchildren’s lunchboxes have ended.

Peanut butter brands (as well as the peanut industry in general) are doing what they can to overcome this allergen-ridden obstacle, including supporting detailed labels on food products, funding research that will help pinpoint the allergy-causing proteins and perhaps help create a peanut-allergy vaccine, and educating consumers on the dilemma. Skippy’s website is the only one at the moment that addresses the problem head-on (there’s an entire “Allergy Info FAQ”), but it is in the best interest of all the brands to funnel as much money and effort as possible to combat this category-busting problem.

While today’s harried parents can choose from an array of prepackaged lunch options, the classic PB&J remains as convenient as it is healthy and tasty. And that means the three major peanut butter brands—plus several smaller ones—will have to employ successful branding to secure a place in the American lunch box.     

[19-Jan-2009]

 
  
  

Jennifer Gidman lives and works in New York.

     
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 Question: "how often do you find yourself hankering for a sunflower-seed-butter sandwich?"Answer: Sunflower-seed-butter and almond-butter are top picks for me. 
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