As consumers deal with economic blows, meat snack producers are looking to new flavors, formats and audiences to help drive growth in the category.

Meat snacks may not top the shopping lists of every consumer, but beef jerky, sausage sticks and other formats are planned purchases and impulse buys that still play a role in today’s tough economy.

“Consumers are really spending the same amount or more on the category,” says Jeff LeFever, director of marketing for Link Snacks, Inc., maker of theJack Link’sline. That said, they’re also relying more on national brands such asJack Link’s, he adds, which is growing at better than 9%.

Although meat snacks are associated with good times and fun, LeFever says, right now, “consumers are really being driven by comfort and value.”

Ryan Post, senior brand manager for The Oberto Sausage Co., agrees.

“While commodity and beef prices in recent years have increased production costs for us and our competitors, we are glad to continue to offer great-tastingOberto snacks at a great value to our customers,” he says.

“The current economy does not make it easy to predict the future of our production and consumer pricing,” Post continues. However, “we expect to see continued growth in the coming year, as consumers look for affordable snacking options at their local convenience stores and the meat snack industry responds with more affordable options for retailers.”

LeFever notes that although he isn’t expecting fantastic growth in the meat snack category anytime soon, he isn’t expecting any major losses, either.

Convenience stores remain the best-developed channel for meat snacks sales, he points out, making up 60% of the category’s sales. But “we’re seeing strong sales growth across the board,” LeFever adds, specifically in the drug channel. Meanwhile, mass and grocery channels contribute make up about 15% of meat snack sales, he estimates.

What accounts for meat snack success is a uniqueness in terms of taste, convenience, portability and satiety, LeFever asserts. Meat snacks also are high in protein and low in fat, which makes them distinct.

In addition, the category offers a variety of formats. For example, theJack Link’slineup includes jerky, tender cuts, snack sticks, nuggets and sausage cuts, as well as portion-control, single-serve packages of all of these.

A growing diversity of flavor also contributes to the meat snacks story.

Flavors to Savor

Traditional jerky flavors such as teriyaki still dominate the meat snack market, but others are making their mark.

Take Bridgford Foods’Sweet Baby Ray’sflavored beef jerky. Now available in Dollar General stores nationwide, the BBQ-based item “has been extremely well-received to date,” says Cara Bernosky, president and co-founder of IMC Licensing, who callsSweet Baby Ray’s“the fastest growing BBQ sauce in America.”

“We see great potential in linkingSweet Baby Ray’swith additional new opportunities in food licensing to expand the brand’s presence in supermarkets, mass merchandisers, convenience stores and restaurants across the country,” she explains.

BBQ also is on the brain over at Oberto, whose latest introduction is the limited-editionOh Boy! ObertoSouthern Style Pork Jerky. This “Southern style” variety is the only one of its kind on the marketplace, according to company literature.

In addition to barbecue, more complex flavors are coming on strong. For example,Jack Link’srecently added a Sweet & Spicy Thai jerky.

“The sweet and hot segment is always a pretty good performer, and this puts a contemporary spin on it,” LeFever says.

Jack Link’salso has unveiled a Hickory Smokehouse jerky.

On the other end of the spectrum, Link Snacks has created a line of chicken nuggets in Flaming Buffalo and Sesame Teriyaki varieties, bringing together new flavors and formats.

Hitting the Target

When asked to describe the targetJack Link’sconsumer, LeFever easily outlines a description based on age (adults under 55, primarily with kids ages 6-18), household income ($45,000-$75,000), education (high school - some college) and location (rural and suburban).

Meanwhile, Post details Oberto’s core customer as “the 25- to 45-year-old male who shops in c-stores regularly.”

However, when it comes to meat snacks, the key buyer is less demographic than psychographic, LeFever suggests. “We call them adventurous spirits,” he says.

Post would appear to agree with the psychographic notion, calling the Oberto aficionado “an Alpha male that sets up a poker night with the guys, buys seasons tickets, hosts the party,” in reference to his brand’s latest marketing campaign. “He’s confident and successful, and he eats a lot of beef jerky.”

While meat snacks have traditionally been enjoyed by outdoorsmen, an increasing number of women and children now count the category as a lunch box item or daytime snack, as well.

Not to mention teens.

Link Snacks’ newMATADOR meat snack sticks blend a snappy texture and spicy flavor aimed specifically at teenagers. According to the company, more than 41 million American teens spend an estimated $350 million on meat snacks each year. Its latest product hopes to grab hold of that audience through an integrated action sports platform and dedicated sports campaign and dedicated advertising campaign. For example, Jack Link’s will sponsor athletes in BMX, skateboarding and snowboarding, and partner with leading action sports events, including the 2009 Dew Tour and an action sports training country called Camp Woodward.

“We’re really trying to target a teen with an action-driven lifestyle,” LeFever says.

To that end, the Jack Link’s brand has teamed up with professional skateboarder Adam Taylor and BMX rider Dennis Enarson to help promote its newMATADOR brand.

Regardless of the target audience, meat snack manufacturers remain unfazed by the current state of the economy, instead taking this opportunity to move forward with new flavors and formats for an increasingly diverse audience. CSR

Pork Rind Report

Pork rinds are yet another segment of the meat snack category that’s making innovations.

For example, U.K.-based Green Top Snacks, Ltd. recently extended the shelf-life of itsPork Scratchingssnack line by up to 50% while maintaining low oxidation levels for its frying oil by reducing free fatty acid formation withINOLENS 4, a natural rosemary extract formulation developed by Vitiva.INOLENS 4offers beneficial anti-rancidity protection for edible and frying fats and oils, leading to longer shelf life and considerable savings.

“This sets new standards in the marketplace,” says Lee Edwards, managing director of Green Top Snacks.

Vitiva CEO Ohad Cohen adds that by usingINOLENS 4, “Green Tops Snacks has become one of the most advanced producers of natural snacks, offering consumers all the advantages of natural products, while gaining cost reduction during the economic crisis.

“Both consumers and producers benefit by usingINOLENS 4in their products,” he notes.

For more information,

Licensing Leaders

Link Snacks, Inc. and Kraft Foods, Inc. have been nominated by the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association for a 2009 International Licensing Excellence Award. The Best Corporate Brand Licensee of the Year Award recognizes Link Snacks’Jack Link’s A.1.Meat Snacks, which made their debut in late 2006.

Louisville, Ky.-based product licensing firm IMC Licensing helped Link Snacks negotiate the partnership with Kraft that led to the creation of the products in the beef jerky line, which are 97% fat-free and flavored with Kraft’s A.1.steak sauce.

Nominations for the award were made by licensing industry professionals. Members of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association will vote on the winner, which will be recognized at a ceremony in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 2.