How Makers of Beef Jerky and Slim Jim Are Finding Success Through the Keto Diet

Manufacturers are trying to lean into the trend

A photo of beef jerky
In the first week of 2020, Conagra Brands, home to meat snacks Slim Jim and Duke’s, released a keto snack box on Amazon. Duke's
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Key insights:

“Meat snacks” might not be the most pleasant phrase, but as a consumer goods category, its success is anything but rare.

In the U.S., total retail sales of jerky and other dried meat products grew from $2.6 billion in 2014 to $3.4 billion in 2019, a 31% increase, according to numbers from Chicago-based market research firm IRI. Marissa Gilbert, associate director of health and wellness at market insights agency Mintel, noted that while beef and turkey jerky remain robust, fish and pork jerky are also finding their way onto shelves.

“While plant-based foods may be grabbing headlines, meat-based snacks are actually faring quite well with consumers who are seeking protein-rich snacks,” said Gilbert.

Part of the reason behind this growth spurt, say experts and insiders alike, is the prevalence of the ketogenic diet, which instructs people to eat more protein and fat while consuming less carbohydrates and sugar. And manufacturers are also finding ways to lean into the trend, too, whether by producing new keto-friendly products, targeting keto-related searches on Amazon or simply describing offerings as aligned with the diet.

In the first week of 2020, for instance, Conagra Brands, home to meat snacks Slim Jim and Duke’s, released a keto snack box on Amazon. Apart from containing the aforementioned protein-rich brands, the offering also included packages of sunflower and pumpkin seeds from the company’s David Seeds and Bigs brands.

A sidebar image that says Know Your Audience with a photo of Slim Jim, Chomps and Jack Link's

“The No. 1 trend that we see is a consumer desire to get more protein in their diet,” said Burke Raine, vp and general manager of Conagra’s snacks division, citing data from market research firm NPD Group that showed 60% of U.S. adults want more protein.

Likewise, beef jerky purveyor Jack Link’s said it strategically develops its product offerings to meet current needs and correspond with modern diets. One keto-friendly innovation introduced last May was the Jack Link’s Zero Sugar Jerky.

“The keto movement has certainly played a role in the growth of the meat snack category as consumers look for better-for-you snacking options,” said Tom Dixon, CMO at Jack Link’s. “Whether or not the keto diet is here to stay, we know most are just striving to make better decisions, and sugar is enemy No. 1.”

While Jack Link’s doesn’t explicitly label its zero-sugar product as keto-friendly on the packaging, it most certainly does on the item’s product description found on its website and Amazon. According to statistics provided by Jack Link’s, the phrases “keto snacks” and “keto” rank first and second, respectively, on Amazon’s grocery search and numbers 68 and 69 across Amazon’s entire platform.

Apart from creating new products around the keto trend, another strategy is simply to align existing ones with popular keywords so they appear higher in the search results. According to data analytics firm SimilarWeb, keto-related searches on Amazon in 2019 generated around 4.5 million unique page views.

Kalahari Biltong and Chomps are two more companies in the meat snack space that both identify their products as keto-friendly and target keto-friendly consumers with digital advertising. Biltong are air-dried strips of meat made using a centuries-old process that originated in South Africa, another new spin on the category that’s also gaining momentum, Gilbert said.

“‘Keto-friendly,’ ‘keto-friendly snacks’—those are very competitive search terms,” said Tyler Noyes, co-founder of Kalahari Biltong. “Many brands are competitively bidding on those specific ad words.”

In recent years, media outlets have linked the keto craze to celebrities like LeBron James, Jenna Jameson, Kourtney Kardashian and Al Roker. Even Vinny Guadagnino of MTV’s Jersey Shore has an Instagram account dedicated to the diet, which currently boasts over 892,000 followers, and a Keto Guido Cookbook. Last April, Chomps began an official partnership with influencer and keto advocate Thomas DeLauer, who has more than 2 million followers on YouTube.

Bob Nolan, svp of decision sciences at Conagra, said that when it comes to digital, it’s crucial to match changes in consumer demand with goods on hand by considering how they’re described. Nolan said that last June, Conagra added keto-related keywords to the product descriptions of about 30 items in its portfolio already listed on Amazon. Over the next six months, sales grew 35% compared to the same time the previous year, according to the company.

In its most recent quarterly earnings presentation last December, Conagra reported that its meat snacks division grew 7.8% compared to the same time period last year. Following its release, company shares surged 16% in a single day.

“We didn’t spend any money on promoting them more or pay for any search results,” said Nolan.

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@hiebertpaul Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.