NEW YORK – Jell-O has lost its jiggle and nobody knows how to fix it.
The dessert was invented more than a century ago and helped popularize a delicacy reserved for the rich into a quick, affordable treat. Americans of all ages are familiar with the famous J-E-L-L-O jingle and TV ads featuring comedian Bill Cosby. Knocking back Jell-O shots made with alcohol is a college memory for many.
Yet despite its enduring place in pop culture, sales have tumbled 19 percent in the past four years, with alternatives such as Greek yogurt surging in popularity. Executives at Kraft Foods, which owns Jell-O, say they’re confident they can revitalize the brand. But their efforts so far have been a disappointment.
After years of marketing sugar-free Jell-O to dieters, for instance, Kraft last year launched an ad campaign that switched back to playing up the family angle. In one TV spot called Comb Over, a man with the title hairdo tells his son how Jell-O makes up for life’s troubles, like being stuck in traffic. The visual gag is when the child imagines himself going through life with a comb over.
Kids thought it was hilarious, said Dan O’Leary, senior director of marketing for Kraft desserts.
Unfortunately, it didn’t get people in the mood for Jell-O. After showing signs of improvement, Jell-O sales in the U.S. hit $932.5 million in 2009, reflecting box mixes and ready-to-eat cups of gelatins and puddings, according to market researcher Euromonitor International. But they’ve been declining ever since, and by last year, sales had a double-digit percentage drop to $753.8 million.
Part of the problem is that people have become more finicky about what they eat. They’re increasingly seeking out foods they think are natural or wholesome, and Jell-O’s bright reds, greens and blues may inadvertently serve as warning signals to moms about the artificial dyes they contain. The second ingredient listed for the Jell-O gelatin cups is also high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sugar substitute that more people are shunning.
Nutrition more broadly is another issue. Jell-O has long positioned itself as a lighter alternative to cakes and pies. But the trend now is toward foods that claim some sort of benefit, such as protein and fiber.
Even for those who have fond memories of eating Jell-O, the problem is just that – it’s a treat associated with the past.
It almost seems childish to cook it now, said Ted McGrath, a 34-year-old painter in New York City who thinks of Jell-O as being in the same category as Twinkies or fast food.
Kraft CEO Tony Vernon concedes Jell-O wasn’t getting the attention it deserved as a storied brand. That’s because the company for many years was preoccupied by more popular snacks, such as Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies.
So Kraft says it’s encouraging people to get creative with Jell-O on social media sites such as Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. By posting images of Jell-O creations, the company says others get inspired to share their own. It’s also pushing new Jell-O molds, such as a university molds that allow people to make Jell-O in the shape of school mascots.