Nutter Butter’s Origin Remains a Mystery in Spite of Its Decades of Staying Power

The peanut butter-flavored sandwich cookies celebrate 50 years on the market

Nutter Butter's giant peanut butter shape remains the bestseller.
Nutter Butter's giant peanut butter shape remains the bestseller.
Kacy Burdette for Adweek

A kid plays on a swing, contemplating his afternoon snack. His co-star, an animated character in Nutter Butter’s 1973 television commercial, is the spitting image of Willy Wonka, the beloved Gene Wilder version, though some viewers have noticed touches of Uncle Sam. With an earworm jingle and a breezy backdrop, the spot serves a memorable piece of Americana.

Along with a one-of-a-kind shape, the treat’s quirky name helped propel Nutter Butter to superstar status when it launched in 1969.

“Not only is it a unique shape, but it connects directly to the flavor and the product experience,” said Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at brand consultancy Landor. “It’s so iconic; it’s almost like the Coke bottle.”

Kacy Burdette for Adweek

The brand might not have been as successful, or had decades of staying power, without the textured wafers.

“There have always been other peanut butter-flavored sandwich cookies on the market,” added Zalla, “but I bet you can’t name the brands.”

For all its importance on the cookie shelf, its origin story is somewhat of a mystery. No single person is credited with inventing Nutter Butter, though a former design engineer and 49-year Nabisco employee named William Turnier may have had a hand in the cookie’s immediately recognizable shape and pattern. His work on Nutter Butter, Milk Bone, Oreo, Animal Crackers and other classic brands is listed in his 2004 obituary, but the details of a precise and confirmed history remain a bit fuzzy.

Courtesy of Nutter Butter

“Even those of us working on the brand don’t have all the answers,” admitted Tracey Benitz, Nutter Butter’s associate director.

The company is now under the Mondelez International banner, sibling to Cadbury, Honey Maid and Toblerone. Over the years, Nutter Butter has created round, rectangular, bite-size and fudge-covered varieties, though the flagship mimicking an oversized peanut shell is still the bestseller, Benitz said.

The product has leaped from the grocery aisles to fast-food restaurants and specialty retailers, with limited-time goodies like lattes and doughnuts (at 7-Eleven), fluffernutter milkshakes (Big Gay Ice Cream) and peanut butter and banana pie (Bakers Square). A Nutter Butter cereal from Post landed in stores in 2017.

Benitz explained celebrating milestone anniversaries, tapping into cultural moments and collaborating with other like-minded brands such as Krispy Kreme have been pivotal to keeping Nutter Butter fresh.

For its debut on Instagram in June, Nutter Butter began posting beauty shots of the product, often decorated for holidays and gender-reveal parties or pegged to trending topics like the moon landing anniversary and Game of Thrones finale. Its first Pinterest account drove 12 times the average engagement rate with consumers, according to Benitz.

Along those lines, the brand stretched its 50th birthday last summer into a monthslong party that included retro packaging to reflect each decade of its life (tie-dye for the 1960s, disco balls for the '70s), a partnership with clothing brand Johnny Cupcakes for custom T-shirts, experiential activations and sampling events at 7-Eleven. A themed contest sent fans and winners to Woodstock, N.Y., Beverly Hills, Calif., and other “decade-defining” hot spots.
Courtesy of Nutter Butter

Even with “nut-free” zones because of allergies, peanut butter remains “a broadly appealing flavor profile,” said Zalla. She’s a lifelong fan herself who occasionally buys the cookies for her young daughters.

And no matter the current food trends (toward exotic, spicy and healthy and away from indulgence), Nutter Butter has kept its well-defined place for the ages.

“Just take one smell of those cookies,” Zalla encouraged, “and it registers in the memory.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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