As far as Carla King is concerned, the contemporary cracker aisle is a far more welcoming—perhaps even a more progressive—place than it was when she was younger.
“I’d never had a cauliflower cracker growing up,” recalls King, the senior marketing manager at Mary’s Gone Crackers, Reno, NV. “And the idea of ‘gluten-free’ was unheard of. The ingredient lists on most of the crackers I ate were a lot longer, too.”
So it should come as no surprise that King is over the moon with the healthier, cleaner, and all-around more-exciting cracker SKUs that are making today’s cracker sector both a model of creativity for industry, and a snacking resource for consumers—like King—who care.
As the busy mom and cracker-biz insider says, “That’s why it’s so nice to see so many better options on shelves these days—for me and for my child.”
Contemporary crackers, consumers
Tina Pate, vice president of marketing, Mavericks Snacks, Santa Monica, CA, discusses the evolving cracker landscape: “Years ago, kids primarily got snacks high in sugar, fat, sodium, and artificial ingredients, and for obvious reason—it was an easy way to appeal to their taste buds. But today’s crackers put far more emphasis on healthy living, clean ingredients, and creative flavors than they did when we were kids.”
The enlightened brands responsible for cranking out such crackers deserve kudos for changing the face of the modern snack. But equally deserving are the consumers whose demands motivated cracker brands’ R&D efforts in the first place.
“We see today’s cracker consumer as a more health-conscious snacker,” Pate says. “Someone who’d rather grab crackers to pair with cheese, fruit, or nut butters than they would a bag of chips or candy from the vending machine.”
Adds Shibani Potnis, director of marketing, Goldfish, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, NJ, today’s cracker consumer is younger, too—often with children at home—earns a higher household income and “is more digitally savvy, which we saw with the significant growth that happened online in recent years, and that outpaced growth for core snacks.”
And while these consumers prize healthful products free from many of the no-no ingredients on their watch lists—think gluten, GMOs, excess sugars, and pretty much anything artificial—they also maintain high standards for taste, convenience, and affordability, Pate says.
It all adds up to a consumer who’s “shaping today’s cracker space by inspiring innovation and growth,” she concludes. “They’ve inspired traditional category leaders to offer more-straightforward ingredient lists, plant-based alternatives, and gluten-free or organic extensions to their existing lineups, and they’re certainly keeping brands like ours on our toes as we build a more creative, dynamic sector in the industry.”
Snacking is the new meal
Another way consumers are keeping brands on their toes is by demanding crackers that know how to multitask, so to speak.
As King explains, “Today’s consumers have been eating more meals at home over the last year-plus, and they’ve been eating those meals in the form of snacks.” As a result, they’ve elevated crackers to the rank of mealtime essential. “So whether they’re enjoying cheese with crackers or something more elaborate,” King says, “they’ve taken snacking-as-a-meal to a whole new level.”
The upshot, Potnis says, has been salutary for the sector writ large. “As cracker consumption expanded beyond snack-only occasions, the cracker category gained more eating occasions,” she explains. “As a result, daily consumption has increased and crackers have become one of the largest core snacking categories with the highest household penetration and double-digit cumulative growth over the past five years, driven by both flavor and health-forward segments.”
That’s music to Braden Bennie’s ears. According to the senior marketing manager for the Crunchmaster business at TH Foods, Loves Park, IL, the Crunchmaster brand’s been encouraging its target audience to “explore the versatility of our portfolio: Eat the crackers by themselves, with a dip, with toppings, as part of a charcuterie board or even a ‘seacuterie’ board. With people snacking more than ever, we’ve been working hard to reframe in our consumers’ minds the idea that crackers equal snacks.”
Yet despite crackers’ increasing encroachment on mealtime territory, Pate still sees “the better-for-you cracker class as driving most of the energy and enthusiasm in the category these days,” she says.
Consider how consumers are using crackers as “vehicles for nutritionally dense spreads,” she says, or “to boost daily veggie consumption between meals.” And cracker fans are extending the concept of “better-for-you” beyond mere ingredient statements and stellar nutritionals alone to embrace “products that suit specific lifestyles and needs,” Pate adds, “from plant-based to nutrient-centered.”
Pate’s conclusion: “Consumers want innovation, and that means exciting new items that add something unique to their dietary routines.”
King agrees. “Better-for-you crackers are showing up with plant-based callouts and ingredients consumers can easily recognize,” she says. “They’re being made from whole grains and seeds. And they’re free from artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.” All of which keeps today’s consumers coming back for more.
Bennie notes that Crunchmaster responded to the better-for-you trend by renovating its core portfolio in 2021—replacing formulations’ safflower oil with “consumer-preferred” olive oil, for instance, and retrofitting all the SKUs in the brand’s grain-free cracker line to be “‘Paleo-friendly,’ which they weren’t prior to the renovation,” he says.
He also describes the brand’s Bistro Crisps as hitting “a trifecta of consumer trends—grain-free, vegan, and paleo—while still staying true to our promise of always being gluten-free.” The brand’s margherita pizza and nacho flavors even meet FDA’s “healthy” definition, he adds, “so they’re truly better for everyone.”
Pate points to “the overabundance of sugar—especially in kids’ snacks”—as a driving concern with parents who “want to lower their kids’ sugar consumption without sacrificing taste.” To “support that mission,” she says, Mavericks formulates products across its portfolio to contain 40 percent less sugar than leading kids’ choices.
In fact, Mavericks is “taking better-for-you a step further,” Pate continues, by offering snacks that’re specifically “better-for-kids.”
“We looked at the space and saw a ton of innovation around better-for-you millennial offerings and even products for babies and toddlers,” she says. “But no one was focusing on K-12. So we provided that ‘permissible indulgence’ that parents seek for their kids.”
One example: Mavericks’ Crackerz line packs 8 grams of whole grains into each serving—a distinction that Pate says the brand “is proud to offer,” and one that she considers “a huge differentiator between our snacks and others on the market.”
And it’s in the direction of such differentiation that Pate sees the future of kid-centered snacking—and of crackers in general—as headed. “Going into 2022,” she states, “we envision continued category evolution as brands build out their portfolios to consider the dietary preferences and needs of a more health-conscious consumer.”
Back to the future
Mary’s Gone Crackers is already answering the call, King asserts. The brand’s REAL THIN line—made from a blend of gluten-free flours—is racking up sales, she says.
Meantime, Bennie points to the continued success of the mixed-nut crackers that Crunchmaster launched at Costco, Sam’s, and BJ’s Wholesale in fall 2020 as further evidence that health-minded consumers are ready for crackers based on nuts. “The product is made with almonds, pecans and walnuts to give it a unique and delicious taste and aroma,” he adds.
And nuts are just the beginning: Chickpea-, cauliflower- and seed-based crackers are all fast moving into the mainstream.
But while nontraditional bases and inclusive nutritionals resound as major themes, comfort, Potnis says, “has also consistently become a key purchase driver across snacking categories.” And that, she claims, has kept Campbell’s iconic Goldfish brand—which she calls the “perfect nostalgic snack from childhood”—in the spotlight.
“After all,” she notes, “Goldfish is the snack for the young and the young at heart. About 40 percent of Goldfish consumption occurs among adults aged 18 and older.”
In a bid to leverage those consumers’ penchant for nostalgia—as well as their penchant for piquant profiles—Campbell released two peppery Goldfish LTOs in 2021: a cobranding effort with Frank’s Red Hot, and a jalapeño popper variety.
Not only do their spicy profiles appeal to heat-seeking consumers; as Potnis notes, “Frank’s happens to have a huge cult following, and the jalapeño popper was a staple of the 90s.” So to dial up the nostalgia even more, Goldfish partnered with 90s-era fashion brand JNCO Jeans to create a limited-edition jalapeño popper JNCO jean, “allowing us to enter the culture in a unique and ownable way,” she says. “In fact, the jalapeño popper Goldfish was the best new cracker in the category in Q3 of the calendar year.”
Brave new crackers
How else will successful crackers adapt to meet consumers where they’re at?
Bennie’s putting his money on brands that can harness online channels for stronger growth. “The emergence of ecommerce as a channel enables more manufacturers to access potential consumers,” he says. “This has and will continue to drive more product personalization to meet consumer needs. We predict that, as a result, the diversity of choice will expand exponentially.”
Pate add that brands will need to acknowledge an “uneven economic environment by helping consumers stretch their dollars further with new pack sizes as well as in-store, digital, and online coupon offerings.” Doing just that, Mavericks launched a new pack size on the brand’s one-year anniversary last April. “Formerly offered only in eight-count single-serve pouches,” Pate says, “our products now come in a 7-ounce ‘sharing size’ that lets consumers enjoy a little or a lot, by the box or the handful.”
The lesson for brands, Potnis wagers, is that the consumers drive today’s cracker bus. “They’re demanding more from their snacks across categories,” she says. “Whether it’s a category mashup or more adventurous and spirited flavors, we’re seeing it all. That’s why this is an exciting time for the cracker category.”