Since its rollout 26 years ago, Lunchables has plowed forward as one of the most resilient food brands in America, surviving frequent criticism from health advocates while dominating the kids' packaged-lunch category. Last year, the brand reached $1 billion in retail sales for the first time, according to brand-owner Kraft Foods Group.
But for most of its history, Lunchables has never tried to crack the lucrative teen market, fearing that the age group might be a little bit too old -- and too cool -- for the brand.
However, that changed last year when Lunchables began aggressively targeting 13-to-17-year-olds with a larger-portion line called Uploaded. It's been a major hit: Uploaded raked in $125 million in sales its first year, busting through the critical $100 million barrier, according to Kraft.
Kraft is increasing its investment in year two, adding varieties and boosting marketing, including growing the brand's partnership with Microsoft's Xbox and MTV celebrity Rob Dyrdek. "We think that we might just be scratching the surface on its potential," said Geoff Feil, marketing director for Lunchables, which part of the Oscar Mayer division. Uploaded last year got $15.4 million in measured media support, according to Kantar Media.
By aging up, Kraft wants to extend the brief consumer lifecycle of regular Lunchables. "We work hard to bring [consumers] in, but we only have them for a short period of time," Mr. Feil said.
Larger portions are key to the strategy. Regular Lunchables contain kid-friendly food such as crackers, cheese and turkey; Uploaded meals include entrees such as 6-inch subs and nachos grande, with side snacks like Pringles and Cheez-Its. In June, Uploaded will launch a version with a deep-dish pizza topped with bacon. Teens know bacon is trendy, and they "appreciate the taste more" than younger kids, Mr. Feil said.
But Uploaded has not escaped health criticism that has long dogged regular Lunchables. In a new report, Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity stated that Uploaded packs are "higher in calories, sodium and saturated fat than other varieties." It also noted that none of the seven Uploaded varieties it analyzed met the broad nutritional standards set by Kraft in 2013 that would allow them to be advertised to kids under age 12 as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
But Oscar Mayer said Uploaded meals aren't designed to comply with the CFBAI guidelines -- the products reflect teens' desire for larger portions. "All but one recipe are a good source of protein," a spokeswoman said in an email. "The three sub recipes, the pizza and the nachos items are an excellent source of calcium."
Uploaded meals are packaged in silver and gray, a move meant to differentiate them from Lunchables' standard yellow. Advertising is driven by a partnership with Mr. Dyrdek, a professional skateboarder and star of MTV's "Fantasy Factory."
Mr. Dyrdek stars in a 12-episode video series called "Fully Uploaded," which features him interacting with standout teens. A recent episode starred skateboarding phenom Jagger Eaton.
The brand promotes the videos with paid advertising on Xbox. The series also landed a spot on Xbox's video page, which includes regular movies and TV shows. Lunchables is the second brand to secure such placement, following Gatorade, according to the brand, which also runs TV ads supporting Uploaded. The brand's agencies include McGarryBowen and Starcom MediaVest's LiquidThread.