11 July 2009

Mmmm.... Peanut Butter! Part 1

Both radio and peanut butter have humble beginnings, making their big splash this side of the border. Marconi used Newfoundland to receive the first Trans-Atlantic broadcast and Edson patented peanut butter from his residence in Montreal.

Canadians are awesome. (insert smiley face emoticon here)

A number of years ago, in the grocery aisles where I grew up, there were three dominant brands available to consumers: Skippy, Squirrel and Empress.

Empress. What can I say, it was the Safeway store brand before there the invention of no name or generic products. It was a decent enough product, and half the price of the others. You knew better than to ask for allowance when there was Empress in the pantry cause things were tight if we were eatin' store brands. Quality was always good, but flavour was a bit lacking and this was true of most of the house brands, the jams that Empress made however were top shelf. Today, the Empress brand is reserved for jams only, other products along with the peanut butter moved into large tubs with lousy packaging that equal the taste.

Skippy was the fun one, it had colourful packaging, and was noticably sweeter and smoother than the others - their secret was the use of icing sugar rather than granular or liquid sugars. The packaging was marketed to kids, and as a result, it was the top pick amongst us kids. The Canada Corn Starch Company manufactured this under the Best Foods banner until it was sold to Unilever in the 1990's.

Squirrel peanut butter was a novel treat from time to time as it gave you one of the first unique packaging experiences known - when you opened the jar you were greeted with a whole peanut, sitting on the top of the peanut butter. The first scoopful was always a treat - the rest of it was so-so, mostly because it wasn't the kids first pick. I may be wrong about this, but I believe Kraft had this under their umbrella and manufactured it for many years before finally selling to Best Foods in the 1990's. CCC, AKA Best Foods, quickly liquidated many of their lines which included the unloading of Squirrel and Skippy to Unilever.

When Unilever acquired both Skippy and Squirrel, they decided the consumers only needed one peanut butter or they only wanted to manage one peanut butter with the accounts. Customers wouldn't notice, or if they did they wouldn't be vocal about it - luckily I didn't have this blog then. They did it slowly, they slowly killed off the number two seller in the category. Some companies in the food industry would die to have number 1 and number 2 sellers in a category - there certainly must have been other issues to arrive at the decision they did to nix the poor squirrel.

So, Skippy came out on top and its name would carry on down the sales trail - but how exactly would they 'off' good ole Squirrel? Well, they decided to do somewhat of a merger of the two brands - a sort of brand integration 'til the end. I actually would have advised the same tactic at the time. They merged the two brands by calling it Skippy the Squirrel and in a collaborative effort between wordmarks and fonts the slowly worked the squirrel out of the brand. It was the Skippy formula with the Squirrel peanut on the top... for a while.

Whether through customer feedback or just sheer lack of understanding of their brand legacy, they changed the formula and dropped the whole peanut. And, over time, the packaging featuring the little mascot squirrel and the name squirrel started to shrink, and each time you purchased a jar, it got smaller and smaller until one day they were gone entirely. Gone from the shelf, but not from our memories.

I used to love having a peanut butter sandwich... raspberry jam was my all-time favourite, but strawberry jam or honey worked out nicely too. And, if my dad taught me anything it's that the amount of peanut butter is at the very minimum twice as thick as the complimentary spread - dad always made the best peanut butter sandwiches, not sure if mom was spreading it thin as a means to make the jar last longer or she just didn't know any different. I never told her this fact because she would change it for sure and there would be no difference between the two - then dad's wouldn't be looked forward to as a treat.

These days, a bit of me gets disappointed when I eat a peanut butter sandwich. I get excited about the idea of a PB and J, I lay out the bread 4 up on the counter with the tops of their crusts touching. My mouth waters as I make the sandwiches, but when I take the first bite, something is different. It's not the same. Is it that I am old and loosing my taste buds? I don't think so. I think the formula has been changed ever so slightly over the years, a bit here and a bit there... enough to make my childhood treat, my comfort food, my sit back and relax snack, a distant memory.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the sandwich, it's just different. It's not the same as it once was. And, it once was great.

Kevin's helpful shopping tip: if you're looking for real jam, it should read 'jam' on the label, fruit spread is not an acceptable substitute in my book.

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