Jell-O Can't Stop Slippery Sales Slide

Jell-O Flop
Dan Goodman/AP

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 (KRFT), 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, such as 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.

Declining Sales

Unfortunately, it didn't get people in the mood to eat Jell-O. After showing signs of improvement for a couple years, 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 seen 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 (as the slogan goes, "There's always room for Jell-O"). 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.

Ignored Brand

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. But in late 2012, Kraft split into two companies and the newly formed Mondelez International (MDLZ) walked away with those higher-profile snacks.

Since the separation, Kraft has vowed to boost the performance of neglected brands such as Jell-O. None of the efforts so far have worked, but executives remain optimistic.

In a rapidly changing food culture, they see new opportunities. Those in their 20s and 30s, for instance, love expressing their creativity through cooking, yet also want the convenience of packaged foods, O'Leary notes.

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, such as an image of a red, white and blue Jell-O ring one follower posted on Facebook (FB) posted on July 4. It's also pushing new Jell-O molds, such as a line of university molds that allow people to make Jell-O in the shape of their school mascots.

A 'Rich' Dessert

In a way, the strategy traces back to Jell-O's roots in the early 1900s, when salesmen distributed free Jell-O recipe books in an effort to boost sales. The idea was to let everyday people make fancy Victorian desserts, such as the "Roman Sponge" a concoction made with maraschino cherries, whipped cream and walnuts.

Such dishes had been out of reach for many because they could be time consuming and require unappetizing ingredients such as fish bladders, said Lynne Belluscio, director of the LeRoy Historical Society in Le Roy, New York, where Jell-O was invented.

"Jellies were extremely elitist," Belluscio said. "In Europe, the economics of a family or its social standing could be judged on its pudding or jelly mold."

But Jell-O helped make those dishes accessible for everyone, she said.

Increased Competition

Today, there's a proliferation of sweets and snacks touting more pristine ingredients, such as Fage Greek yogurt and Kozy Shack puddings. But Jell-O can cling to one advantage: the nostalgia it evokes.

That's on display at the Jell-O Gallery in Le Roy, New York. The museum -- essentially a room in the town's historical society -- still gets between 10,000 to 13,000 visitors a year, according to Belluscio.

Admittedly, many of those visitors decide to pull over on a whim after spotting the sign on the New York State Thruway for the gallery. When a storm knocked down the sign one year, Belluscio said visits dropped dramatically.

Still, the Jell-O Gallery remains by far the star attraction in the building, beating out the transportation exhibit in the basement and the genealogy and history library on the main floor. And once people step inside, the memories come tumbling forth.

"It's really funny how many people come here and say, 'Oh man, I haven't had Jell-O in so long,' " Belluscio said.

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I hadn't made jello in years until this past week. I saw molds for logos for college teams in my local Wal-Mart. Since my daughter attends FSU, this was an easy purchase. It was really simple and quick to prepare. I boiled my water in the microwave and added it to the mix, stirred and poured into the molds and refrigerated. They are adorable, each tray took 1 box of jello and made 12 molds (2 reusable trays per box) and everyone loved them! It was so much easier than I remembered. Jello should do more promotions like this! I'm going back to purchase another box, so I can make more at a time.

August 26 2014 at 5:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I made Jello "eggs" and "jelly beans" from the "molds' I got from the store when you purchased many boxes of Jello. It was fun, wish I still had them...............

August 24 2014 at 10:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Americans of all ages are familiar with the famous "J-E-L-L-O" jingle and TV ads featuring comedian Bill Cosby.

Thou has nothing to do with billy boy. It be scum. & to thee, the name kraft meens nothing but fake and downsized junk.

August 23 2014 at 3:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Those people who say that they would eat jello but don't because it has cow hooves in it really should do their research and use their common sense. Besides the fact that people used to utilize the entire animal back in those days when it was a matter of survival and it's an edible product, perhaps you should read the labels of other foods that contain gelatin that you probably are feeding your faces with non the wiser such as some yogurt brands, marshmallows/marshmallow creams, ice cream, frozen yogurts, refrigerated dips, candies, some soft drinks... You might learn something...

August 23 2014 at 3:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

People. Listen up. If we continue to vote for the wrong Government then it's going to get worse. They will change the food we eat and that's not right at all. It's our American freedom. It's Obama . He is destroying everyone of us. Please wake up and stop letting Obama walk all over us. It's time to put a stop to this fear . The Government is not doing anything to protect us at all. They are pourpously trying to create more problems and trying to change on how we eat. I'm so tired of living in fear of this country already. I'm already planning heading back home to the U.K. The U.S. needs to wake up and realize it. Thanks.

August 23 2014 at 3:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

people are not eating jello coz it contains animal bones, hooves etc.

August 23 2014 at 2:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to pyrrha34's comment

For the squeemish, yes gelatin is obtained in a bizarre and creepy process.BUt what NOBODY is remembering is, that we used to have to consume the whole animal to survive.That meant bones , cartilage, the whole nine yards.Did any one stop to think that the base of this product is the same as consuming joint relief compound tablets. Let Jell-o research or publish that this product helps joints and their sales might take a rebound. Doesn't anyone remember that if you have weak nails, you should add gelatin to your diet? Or has all that old knowledge been lost?

August 23 2014 at 2:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Martha's comment

I agree, Martha! I was coming on to say the same thing! It is a pain in the ass to make Jello, but if they sell sugerfree Jello in the store already mixed with whipped cream, I promise to keep it in my house & between my hubby & I, one of us will eat some everyday!
Just don't make it too sweet. I was served it at the hospital recently and it was sickeningly sweet. I couldn't eat it!

August 23 2014 at 2:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to murrayfuentes's comment

AND YES! By all means, advertise that it has been proven to lesson the pain & damage caused by arthritis.
Jello, ARE YOU READING THIS? I HOPE SO! My favorite flavor is raspberry! ;-)

August 23 2014 at 2:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

Maybe if they got rid of the corn syrup the taste would go up and the calories would go down.

August 23 2014 at 2:20 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to peteswarr's comment

Maybe if they got rid of the corn syrup

Maybe,, maybe, is thou not sure????? Shut thou`s pie hole.

August 23 2014 at 3:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Part of the problem is that a LOT of people don't want to take the time to make it, they want something they can just dish out. The small cups of plain jello just aren't the same. Where I live, people still use Jello to make salads or desserts for dinners etc. Jello with fruit is still big.

August 23 2014 at 2:18 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to leegfan's comment

Like the salad with fruit and whipped cream.... but NOT the one with the cottage cheese.

August 23 2014 at 10:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

C'mon y'all. it's easy 4 oz water and the balance vodka or rum. The kids will love it. Let it set up a little longer though. Some folk add liquors with coconut rum, Jaegermeister or other flavors. There's dozens of recipes on facebook or other web sources.

August 23 2014 at 1:43 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply