Kicking the Figs out of Fig Newtons

How Nabisco solved its fruit filling identity crisis

Did you know that Fig Newtons have been around for 123 years?

Wait, scratch that. Fig Newtons were actually around for 121 years, and Newtons—just Newtons—have been around for two years. Confused? We should explain.

Snack foods are one of those magical categories that have this way of sticking around a long time. Twinkies have been with us since 1930. Oreos go all the way back to 1912. And Fig Newtons made their debut in 1891. Trouble is, while the original recipes for many snacks have kept Americans happy for generations, Fig Newtons have had a peculiar problem—namely, figs.

And that explains the huge difference between the two ads here. For the blissed-out, gap-toothed kid in this 1951 ad, the fig jelly that filled Fig Newtons and promised a “Fig-jam jamboree” was—”Whee!”—just about the coolest thing ever. But can you imagine a 21st century tween getting stoked about fig paste now?

No, we can’t either. And neither could Nabisco, which chopped the “Fig” prefix off the brand name in 2012.

The company had lots of good reasons. Fig Newtons (named after Newton, Mass., not Sir Isaac) had already come with a variety of fruit fillings for years. But the big factor was the Ficus carica itself. A Kraft executive admitted to The New York Times that “it was going to be hard for us to advance the Newtons brand with the baggage of the fig.” Why baggage? Some consumers saw figs as a “geriatric” fruit. Apparently, it reminded others of prunes. The Grub Street blog put it bluntly: Figs were “too laxative-y.”

Yeah, well, a plate of figs will do that to you.

Rick Stone, chief brand strategist for Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, believes that Nabisco (today, part of Mondelez International) is simply keeping with the times—and this 2014 ad for blueberry Newtons shows how hard they’re trying. “There’s been a big move to natural and organic foods, and they’ve got the wooden box and a cutting board here,” he said. “By focusing on fruit as a natural product, they’re implicitly going for the health benefits.”

Stone adds that, thanks to the popularity of flavored waters, consumers expect fruit flavors and combos to be way sexier than just fig.

“You’ve got flavors like mango-strawberry and grape-lime—all sorts of things that are catching on,” he said. “You have to have a contemporary feel, and I’m not sure if figs fit into that.”

Not that dropping the “Fig” out of Fig Newtons didn’t create problems of its own. As one irate snack hound tweeted: “What’s next? Triangle Cheez-Its called ‘It’?”

A fair point. But for the record, Newtons still do come in fig. Fortunately for all of us, that creepy, gap-toothed kid is gone for good. 

‘You have to have a contemporary feel, and I’m not sure if figs fit into that.’ Rick Stone, chief brand strategist, Lindsay, Stone & Briggs

1. These plump blueberries are a reminder that Newtons come in a Triple Berry flavor. Also note the dramatic lighting, which Stone describes as “early morning,” with all those wholesome, farm- like connotations.

2. The fruit fillings may have changed, but the Newtons’ distinctive shape—which many a competitor has knocked off—has stayed the same.

3. Stone points out that this happiness reference echoes the 1951 ad’s exuberant “Whee!”—the idea being that eating cookies is still plenty of fun.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.