Jack Link’s wants to be known for more than just gas station jerky.
The Wisconsin-based meat snack giant has appealed to hungry drivers and outdoorsmen for more than 30 years, but competitors have chewed away at the jerky king’s market share recently.
To broaden its image and attract new customers, Jack Link’s has begun to expand product lines, shift marketing and open a new showroom and office in downtown Minneapolis near Target Center.
“We’ve changed our brand vision and our company vision from being the dominant leader in jerky to really being the dominant leader in protein snacking,” said Tom “TD” Dixon, Jack Link’s chief marketing officer, in an interview.
“We feel like we have the ability to bring protein snacking to a whole other level because at the end of the day, you can’t out-protein meat.”
Dixon, who is the company’s first chief marketing officer, was hired in April to help lead the push to make Jack Link’s, and meat snacks in general, more mainstream.
Founded in 1986, Jack Link’s is the country’s largest beef jerky purveyor with more than $1.2 billion in annual sales of jerky and other meat snacks, according to recent data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
The family-owned company was started by John “Jack” Link using the recipes of his great-grandfather. His family has a long history in Minong, Wis., where Jack Link’s is still headquartered.
While John Link originally began making jerky for “hooks and bullets,” hunters and fishermen who have long been jerky’s primary customers, the company is hungry to attract a larger, more diverse fan base.
Meat snacks have experienced a boom in popularity. In the last year, dried meat snacks, which include everything from jerky to individually wrapped meat strips or sticks, earned $2.8 billion in sales, a nearly 4 percent jump from the year before, according to IRI.
But as the category in general continues to grow, Jack Link’s sales and market share have begun to slip. Jack Link’s experienced a 5 percent drop in dollar share of jerky sales compared to the year before so that it now leads with almost 51 percent of the U.S. jerky market. For its other meat snacks, its sales and market share have also taken a dip.
New meat brands have expanded the definition of the typical jerky consumer. Currently, there is an appetite to market more to women and millennials as consumers have started to value a wider selection of flavors as well as grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, said Robertson Allen, a consultant with consumer foods research firm the Hartman Group.
In 2012, 35 percent of meat snack eating occasions were consumed by women, but in 2015 that number rose to 45 percent, according to Hartman research.
Last year, General Mills acquired Texas-based Epic Provisions, which makes energy bars, jerky bites and trail mix that pair meat with fruit and nuts. In 2015, the Hershey Co. purchased gourmet jerky brand Krave. The amount of money Krave made in sales in the last year grew more than 68 percent compared to the year before.
“I’ve heard of these premium brands that are really pushing the needle in terms of quality and what people are looking for and moving away from the stigma of convenience store, trucker, gas station sort of brand that Jack Link’s has controlled and dominated for years,” Allen said.
Jack Link’s, which is known for its very male-centric ads featuring an angry Sasquatch monster and a “Feed Your Wild Side” pitch, has been left to play defense, Allen said.
Jack Link’s has started to make a more concerted effort to appeal to changing customer demographics.
In March, Jack Link’s purchased Grass Run Farms, whose jerky, beef sticks and summer sausage came from cattle raised without antibiotics and added growth hormones. It started jerky brand Lorissa’s Kitchen, an idea born when the wife of Jack Link’s Chief Executive Troy Link had a baby and wanted healthier snacks. Lorissa’s Kitchen jerky comes in smaller pieces and has more moisture which means its easier to chew than traditional jerky.
Jack Link’s will soon start a revamped national advertising campaign around Lorissa’s Kitchen. Next month, Jack Link’s will also introduce breakfast products including brown sugar and maple bacon and breakfast sausage under the name “Jack Link’s A.M.” to show consumers that meat snacks can be eaten in the mornings. Jack Link’s will introduce a line of extra tender jerky as well in March.
As it shifts its product priorities, Jack Link’s marketing has also changed. Minneapolis advertising agency Carmichael Lynch has worked with Jack Link’s to create ads riffing off 1980s workout videos that feature celebrity athletes such as football stars Odell Beckham Jr. and Clay Matthews as well as Timberwolves basketball player Karl-Anthony Towns.
Besides being comical, the ads try to convey Jack Link’s claim that jerky is a healthy snack choice that is high in protein with very little fat.
“One of the things that we are trying to do is associate protein snacking with activity,” Dixon said. “That’s one of the reasons that we are using world class athletes.”
This winter, Jack Link’s was named one of five founding partners of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx basketball teams, pitching in to help pay for the $130 million renovation of Target Center.
Another big part of the company’s branding transformation is a new 77,000-square-foot space at Mayo Clinic Square in downtown Minneapolis complete with contemporary offices, a restaurant space on the ground floor on the corner of Hennepin Avenue and 6th Street and a 12,000-square-foot research and development space.
The office will offer modern features like work cafes and resemble the space of a creative agency more than a corporate headquarters, said Derek McCallum, principal at RSP Architects, who is currently leading the design team.
“Minneapolis plays a critical role as we expand our business both here in the U.S. and globally,” said Troy Link, in a statement. “It’s a strong market for us to recruit top talent that will help drive our organization forward.”
The new office will allow Jack Link’s marketing, sales and research and development teams to be centralized in one space and grow from 150 to eventually 300 people. Company executives said they hope the new office will be a recruitment tool. Employees are scheduled to move into the office space by the end of the summer and start using the research space by November.
As a bonus, there will also be a more than 1,000-square-foot Jack Link’s retail store in the skyway level of Target Center where people can even buy new test products.
“Half of the population still hasn’t participated with jerky or meat snacking,” Dixon said. “And we know that there’s a lot of people out there that if you give them the right flavor or you give them the right texture or you give them the right form, they will begin to participate. … We are now opening ourselves up to compete on a much broader scale.”
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495