(This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur)
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You would think that in this age of organic, vegan, plant-based, natural, fresh, farm-to-table, healthy and nutritious foods, a product made from processed pork that comes in a can and was eaten by soldiers in World War II — not exactly the best era of food nutrition — would be a loss leader. Not so Spam.
Just a few weeks ago, Hormel Foods, the Minnesota-based company that makes Spam, announced record-high sales for the seventh straight year in 2021. “We’ve had to announce new capacity that we’re going to bring online in 2023 to meet the demand,” the company’s CEO told CNBC’s Jim Cramer. “So Spam is as strong as it’s ever been.”
How is this possible? How can a product like this be so popular when Burger King is selling plant-based Whoppers and health-conscious chains like Whole Foods and vegetarian restaurants are the hot places to buy food? Why are so many people buying Spam when many experts agree that “eating it may be associated with a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, COPD, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. “
The answer is it’s delicious, of course. But yeah there’s also a lot of great branding. And execution.
Spam is an inexpensive option for the billions of people in this world who can’t afford trips to Whole Foods or to pay $20 for a vegan burger. Although the company has admitted to raising prices in this era of inflation, the cost of a can of Spam is well within the reach of many who are trying to feed themselves and their families on a budget. During the pandemic, Hormel made sure there were plenty of cans of Spam on hand. The company also recently — and shrewdly — signed a multi-year supply agreement with its key vendors to ensure Spam will stay on the shelves at an affordable price.
Speaking of shelves, Spam also has a long shelf life. You can buy a can and it will sit there for years, so it’s a good backup when other choices aren’t available. Pandemic shoppers hoarded necessities like toilet paper and pasta. Like soldiers during war, apparently many found Spam to be a basic need as well. The sturdy, metallic-like packaging looks like a long-lasting buy; consumers like that.
Spam is versatile and convenient. It can be used in many dishes, from “classic festive musubi” and “BBQ glazed spam burgers” to cobb salads and paninis. So it provides many meal options for the budget-conscious family. Hormel isn’t picky. The company promotes all the ways its product can be used in order to widen its audience.
Timing is everything, and today’s younger generations like stuff that’s old school. Spam is an iconic throwback to more simple times (global wars and related atrocities aside), and Spam’s image — which has changed little since its founding in 1937 — reminds older people of their past and, like vinyl records and vintage lunchboxes, gives newer generations the chance to look cool with an old-school product.
Spam is hugely popular in the Asia-Pacific region. According to the BBC, “It has been a household name in Hawaii since it was introduced in 1937. It can be found on menus across the islands. In South Korea, it was introduced by the U.S. Army during the Korean War, when food was scarce. Today, Spam is so much a part of South Korean culture that it is the staple ingredient in one of the country’s favorite dishes: budae jjigae, or army stew.” Hormel knows this and pays special attention to the markets where its products are most popular.
Finally, Spam is both consistent and it’s varied. How? By sticking to its formula but offering other choices. Plain old Spam still tastes like the same Spam your grandmother used back in the day, so you know what you’re going to get when you get it. But if you want some change, you can get that too. Spam comes in 14 different varieties, including Hot & Spicy, Jalapeno and Hickory Smoke. Some are more popular than others, of course, but Hormel has done its best to meet changing consumer needs and give its customers options.
Have you branded your product or service so brilliantly? Are you executing like this? Hormel has done this. It’s made a simple processed meat product like Spam popular in these days of hyper-focused attention on nutrition and health. That’s pretty impressive.