There is no consensus on what the classic American snack happens to be. Potato chips, beef jerky, pretzels—all are contenders. But this much is certain: If you’re going to make a list of classic American snacks, then trail mix should definitely be on it.
A blend of nuts, dried fruit and (usually) pieces of chocolate, trail mix is considered by many to be the perfect energy food. It’s portable, tasty and rich in fiber and vitamins. And trail mix’s variants are as many as the hikers (and couch potatoes) who eat it.
You’d think all of these factors would be great news for Kar’s, the 86-year-old Michigan company that makes Sweet ‘n Salty—currently the best-selling brand of trail mix in the country. And it is all good news, of course. But while trail mix might be simple, it turns out selling the stuff is not.
“In this category, private label has a strong footprint,” said Kar’s vice president of marketing Bob Bryan, who explained that since trail mix is merely a jumble of “nuts and raisins and seeds, it’s difficult to differentiate yourself.”
“You have to do it [with] quality, packaging and shelf image—you have to win at the point of sale,” he said.
This is why loyal fans of Kar’s noticed a change recently when, for the first time in three decades, Kar’s sent its packaging in for a makeover.
Developed with a creative assist from Retail Voodoo, the new 1-pound bag gives the Kar’s name badge triple the real estate it used to have while reinforcing the brand’s dominance with secondary slogans like “The American Trail Mix.”
“We wanted to make them look like a heritage brand that’s been around longer than the 1980s,” said David Lemley, Retail Voodoo’s president and head of brand strategy. “The current packaging had a distinctive value-brand look and feel [that] wasn’t even in people’s consideration.”
But the rebranding Lemley’s team did was also an exercise in strategic restraint. Bryan noted that however dated the packaging might have been, loyal Kar’s shoppers did recognize it—“so there was a significant risk to making huge changes,” he said. Hence, the core components, like the purple bag with its clear window, had to stay.
What’s notably new is the logo treatment, which Retail Voodoo retooled to resemble the type on a baseball uniform—a nod to Kar’s having gotten its start outside Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. There’s also a blurb about the ballpark on the back of the package and a “Detroit Born 1933” slug just above the brand name.
Lemley noted that until relatively recently, saying you were from Detroit wasn’t much of a boast. “Detroit had gotten a bad reputation, and the brand shied away from talking about where they were from,” he recalled. “But we said, ‘Everybody loves a good comeback.’”
Kar’s got its start in the Motor City in 1933, when Sue Kar began roasting peanuts in her kitchen and selling them outside the ballpark, which was just across the street. Before long, Kar began distributing the nuts in local pubs and stores, and eventually the company opened its own roasting plant. After purchasing the brand in 1967, the Nicolay family expanded Kar’s offerings. Sweet ‘n Salty Mix appeared in 1997, and 2010 marked the debut of an upmarket sister brand called Second Nature, skewed largely toward women in search of non-GMO, “clean” ingredients.
In addition to typography changes, Second Nature’s new packaging stresses the individuality of each ingredient—almonds, pistachios, dried cranberries, raisins—by picturing each one individually. Lemley’s team also gave more prominent billing to Second Nature’s tagline, “Instinctively Good Snacking,” and developed a systemized packaging architecture for both brands that helps shoppers identify the variety they want by color.
Those colors turn out to be necessary, since both Kar’s and Second Nature now boast a wide variety of flavors designed to appeal to regional tastes—this geographic inclusiveness was the intent of the “American Trail Mix” slogan. Though Sweet ‘n Salty might be pure Detroit, Kar’s now offers assortments aimed at regional preferences, including Texas BBQ and Key West Key Lime.
Which raises the question of whether these new mixes are potentially too fancy to even be considered trail mix in the first place. After all, Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums contains a scene in which Japhy Rider is making his own trail mix—“energy food,” he calls it—but all it is is a bag of peanuts, raisins and dried apricots. In the late 1960s, California surfer dudes used to make their own trail mix, too, but there’s little chance it resembled the Seattle Coffee or Mississippi Mud Pie varieties Kar’s sells.
Fortunately, there’s no official recipe for trail mix, which gives Kar’s considerable latitude. In fact, Lemley pointed out, trail mix itself is something of a designer name for the snack. Trail mix, he said, “is what they used to call gorp—good old raisins and peanuts.”