Animal crackers makeover reminds us the only thing constant is change

Animal crackers makeover reminds us the only thing constant is change
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Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, The Cracker Jack Kid, The Quaker Oats guy...what do all these characters have in common? They are all brand icons that have had makeovers over the years to make them more up-to-date and representative of the times in which we live, not necessarily the time in which they were created.

Betty Crocker has never shed her red blazer and white blouse, but she has become a bit younger, less formal and more professional looking over the decades.

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Aunt Jemima was given a long-overdue makeover, shedding her slave-era bandana and getting a perm, pearl earrings and a bit of makeup. So, it seems only fitting that an iconic package like our beloved animal crackers could reasonably receive a similar update. 

While the traditional box, with the animals shown caged individually with their young in a circus boxcar, was a nod to the once-popular Barnum & Bailey Circus and a fun and tasty way to help children learn the names of a variety of animals.

A suggestion from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) led to the change by Mondelez, parent company of cookie producer Nabisco. PETA and its protests were partially responsible for the end of the iconic Barnum & Bailey circus itself, starting with the elimination of elephants in the circus in 2015.

As a follow-up to that success, it seemed fitting to also free the animals on the box and ensure the ethical treatment of the cartoon animals as well. Following a cultural shift that emphasizes the ethical and humane treatment of animals, the new packaging shows the animals roaming free in their natural habitat rather than enclosed behind bars. 

The new portrayal is somewhat more realistic, in that the circus no longer exists and, even in most zoos where they are in captivity, animals are behind glass or in an enclosure created to mimic the animals’ natural habitat.

Granted, it could be argued that it is less realistic, as the animals would not realistically be roaming around a terrain together unless they were starring in one of the many DreamWorks “Madagascar” movies.

Some might say that this update is yet another incarnation of liberal “snowflakes” over-reaching with their political correctness, but in branding, as in life, change is inevitable.

The changes we see in packaging and brand elements are often initiated by an outcry or suggestion regarding political correctness, but they are usually undertaken through overwhelming agreement that brands must keep up with the times to maintain relevance.

Today’s tiny tots will not grow up with fond memories of the circus under a big top or zoos with bars. While the traditional packaging is nostalgic for many of us, it won’t resonate with the next generation of animal cookie consumers given the current climate of humane and benevolent treatment of animals in which they are being raised.

Failing to update and remain relevant within current social sensibilities is key to brands remaining strong and growing.

At some point, the Quaker Oats gentleman had to slim down to represent the healthier lifestyle that has been newly embraced by Americans; Aunt Jemima had to become a much more accurate representation of African-Americans; Betty Crocker had to evolve to represent a modern woman who could come home from work in a managerial position and still bake cookies; and even the Cracker Jack kid had to grow up a little. 

Change is inevitable, and consumers expect the brands that they buy to keep up with societal norms as they evolve. Failing to update can mean a failing brand that becomes obsolete.

In a consumer-packaged goods industry where packaging is such a key part of promotion and, in the case of animal crackers, part of the product itself as the nifty carrying case, you often can judge a brand by its cover.

Marlene Morris Towns is an adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.