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Low-carb devotees have turned beef jerky and cheese balls into the new nouveau cuisine and a raft of former Bubba brands into surprise supermarket success stories.

Sales of once-unfashionable brands Diet Rite, Laughing Cow cheese, Oh Boy! Oberto beef jerky and Baken-Ets pork rinds have rocketed thanks to plugs from Atkins and South Beach diets. But while some of the unlikely hot brands have taken advantage of the boom, others may be failing to capitalize.

Marketers of the surprising hot sellers "should sure as hell be spending more money on advertising and promotions right now," said John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St Joseph's University. He believes they need the push to leverage a better position for the inevitable time when they're less fashionable again. These brands have been "standing offstage for most of the night," he said. "But now they're on and when you're on you give the best you can. ... This is it boys, dance!"

Some marketers are hitting the dance floor, but others have decided to sit this one out.

Diet Rite, Cadbury Schweppes' decidedly out-of-vogue beverage brand, has seen sales surge nearly 70% for the first half of 2004 due in large part to a specific mention of its drinks in Atkins and a mention of the Splenda sweetener it uses in South Beach. Diet Rite will leverage its newly popular status by launching an $8 million TV campaign, only its second in eight years. Cadbury put virtually no spending behind the brand last year. The campaign, from WPP Group's Brand Buzz, New York, plays off the theme "Go for Zero..." to tout its status as the only national brand with zero carbs, zero calories, zero caffeine, zero sodium and zero aspartame.

Sales have soared for small-time cheese maker Bel/Kaukauna USA, whose portion-controlled, 1-carb-gram Laughing Cow cheeses-named specifically in the South Beach diet-have become so popular it can't meet demand. Its marketing is aimed at pacifying dieters in search of its products. A print campaign from Alcone Marketing Group, Darien, Conn., asks, "Is The Laughing Cow shortage driving you crazy?" and says, "We're working hard to quickly increase our production capabilities to bring you more cheese, more often."

According to Becky Ryan, director-marketing, Bel/Kaukauna, sales have more than doubled since last year for the mini rounds of cheese-the subject of many Internet fan clubs-as low-carb dieters flock to its portion control and portability. The important thing, she said, is that "people say they'll eat it even when they go off the [low-carb] diet."

Such rationale is likely the reason makers of meat snacks and pork rinds, despite double-digit growth, are not spending big on major marketing efforts. Information Resources Inc. data show dried-meat snacks grew 18.6% and pork rinds a whopping 34% in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended June 13. Sales for those categories, however, totaled only $296 million and $135 million, respectively.

"You could double sales and it still wouldn't amount to a whole hell of a lot," said one Midwest grocery executive, explaining why there is "not an outpouring of cash" but rather a focus on less costly packaging and merchandising efforts.

Frito-Lay nods to the low-carb trend with the launch of Oberto Edge beef snacks that carry 1 gram of carbs per serving vs. the 7 in its regular beef snacks. But Roger Frye, Frito's VP-marketing, convenience foods, said the company, which markets and distributes the brand for Oberto Sausage Co., is "doing little beyond what we've always done." Packaging highlights its low-carb nature and Frito's direct-to-store delivery drivers are angling to clip the products around low-carb sections.

ConAgra Foods is rolling out new packaging for its Pemmican beef jerky in September that clearly outlines its low-carb, high-protein and fat-free attributes. For Slim Jim beef snacks, mostly touted to teen males via sponsorships of music tours and extreme sports, growth in mass and grocery channels has sparked "family friendly" packaging.

Kraft Foods is taking advantage of the double-digit growth it's gained for its Planters brand. Earlier this year, Planters spokescharacter Mr. Peanut appeared in a print and in TV ads from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote Cone & Belding, New York, offering, "Counting carbs? Look who's been doing it for 85 years."

contributing: kate macarthur

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