Image overhaul: Sprucing up Spam for new generation

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To today's younger generation, Spam is something that invades your computer. It's not something you make for dinner.

Hormel Foods, creator of the 65-year-old canned concoction of pork shoulder and ham, is out to prove otherwise. It's aiming to spiff up Spam's decidedly downscale image by removing the "gel" inside the familiar blue tin while launching an appropriately quirky ad campaign touting the cult classic as a recipe staple.

"A wake up call to America" is what Spam Brand Manager Nick Meyer dubs the "Crazy tasty" campaign Nov. 4 featuring mealtime savior "Joe Spam." While the average Spam consumer today is part of the over-45 set (many of whom first encountered it in wartime) the new effort ages down a bit with a goal of enticing harried young moms.

In the TV and radio effort, developed by Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, Minneapolis, as a kitschy guide for the can't-cook set, Joe Spam is the everyman that impresses crowds at barbecues, beach get-togethers and breakfasts by offering basic-assembly Spam-centered recipes.

Young girl at a barbecue: "These burgers are great!"

Joe Spam: "That's because they're made with Spam."

Man: "How do you make those?"

Joe: "Well, I grilled up some Spam, sliced a tomato, grabbed some cheese and lettuce, then I put it all on a bun. I call it a Spamburger."

Joe Spam appears in another spot cooking macaroni and cheese with Spam. Other executions are expected to follow. The pitch is that the spicy smoked taste of Spam makes eggs, pizza-almost anything-better. And it's done with all the over-the-top fervor of "Monty Python's Flying Circus"' famed Spam routine.

In the spots, people literally eat up the stuff, and when there's none left, Joe Spam is able to clap his hands, yell out "More Spam!" and call up a Spam-mobile that crashes the party out of the clear blue to deliver up more of the "Crazy tasty" stuff. The crowd, of course, barely notices the unusual delivery, as they only have eyes for the little tins of love.

The campaign tries to capture the Americana boldness of the brand itself, is "very noisy" to break through the clutter, and has (also like the brand) a slightly retro feel, said Denny Haley, executive creative director at BBDO. "It's a contemporized, retro take on the brand, a first cousin to [the] Old Navy [campaign.]"

Although the ads don't mention it, the effort coincides with a product improvement for Spam, a $138 million brand that had flat sales for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 8, according to Information Resources Inc. "Among lapsed users and those trying Spam for the first-time, the biggest complaint has been the physical appearance of the product, the `gel' inside the can," Mr. Meyer said. Now, that gel has been eliminated, such news-combined with the new creative-makes Hormel hopeful that the product might yet appeal to 25-to-44-year-old women.

some spam skeptics

Some food analysts are skeptical. "I think the challenge to renovate Spam is a big one," said Prudential Securities analyst John McMillin. Banc of America Securities analyst Bill Leach, noting that Spam's long-ago positioning as a convenience product predated modern refrigeration, added he didn't think Spam "will be back in the forefront of food trends anytime soon."

But don't be too quick to slam Spam. BBDO's Mr. Haley argues that, while it might be "easy to rip the brand, what's unimpeachable is the popularity of it." Sales of Spam-licensed apparel are brisk, and earlier this year the 16,500 square-foot Spam Museum, opened in Hormel's hometown of Austin, Minn.

Among the museum's visitors is Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Spam has its place in the pop-culture continuum," he said. "It's the product we like to joke about as a mystery meat...but that may work to its advantage. We love it so much that we laugh harder at it than anything else."

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