In the spring of 1991, at the apogee of baseball card collecting phenomena, Borden’s Cracker Jack introduced a line of limited-edition, mini-baseball cards from the leading brand in the industry, Topps. These cards, in-packed as prizes in boxes of Cracker Jack, caught on like, well, like night baseball. Unfortunately, after its initial success Borden took what should have been a gold-plated, can’t-miss, annual-promotion-annuity, and muffed it. Within three years, the idea was dead. This is the story then, without candy coating, of how Cracker Jack struck out.
The Cracker Jack brand was introduced to the public by F.W. Ruckheim and Brother at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Cracker Jack got a huge boost in 1908 when Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer plugged it in their song, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with the immortal line: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” (Interestingly, neither man had ever been to a professional baseball game.) In 1912 someone got the bright idea of packing a small prize in each box, thereby creating the first and, unarguably, most prolific child-targeted continuity program. Seventeen billion prizes later, the concept of “a prize in every box” is still the rock that the brand is built on. Sold to Borden in 1964, Cracker Jack initially flourished under the new owner.
In 1980, David Stolz, a former Borden employee and a partner in Columbus’ Stolz-Mead Advertising, began working as Cracker Jack’s prize supplier. A lifelong-baseball fan, Stolz tried for years to sell the brand on using mini-baseball cards as in-pack prizes, just as the company had done in 1915 and 1916. Not one to give up easily, Stolz journeyed to New York with Cracker Jack brand manager Geoff Campbell in tow in 1990 to meet with the legendary Sy Berger of Topps trading cards.
A 55 year employee of Topps, the now-retired Berger is widely regarded as the father of the modern-day baseball card. Berger, Stolz and Campbell created a promotion with two card series of 36 mini-cards each, featuring the best of Major League Baseball’s approximately 288 players. Each mini-card was an exact, one-quarter size duplicate of Topp’s own best-selling 1991 card line.
Miraculously, Borden’s management bought the idea. Stolz then built a campaign around the launch of the “everything old is new again” concept. Sales representatives were armed with plaques that featured mounted, uncut proof sheets of cards for use as dealer premiums. Ads ran in key sporting magazines announcing, the first Cracker Jack baseball card set in 75 years. There was even a self-liquidating mail-in for special Cracker Jack card albums offered for each of the card series.
Once the cards hit the market, sales exploded and kept on going. Series I eventually sold over 75 million boxes, with Series II coming close at 60 million more. Dealers went crazy over the uncut proof sets, knowing full well that they were instant collectibles. Consumers flocked to the card albums, with total orders exceeding 25,000 mail-ins.
Stolz felt he’d created a campaign that could go unchanged for years. When he met with the brand’s management to discuss the 1992 plan, he was stunned to learn that they were dropping Topps and going to Fleer. He knew that, from a collector’s standpoint, Fleer is to Topps as Geo is to Cadillac. “I told them they had to continue with Topps,” Stolz recalled recently. “They didn’t want to hear it; they were all about reducing costs.” Berger sums up the situation best: “People don’t appreciate the value the consumer places on a particular brand.”
Stolz tried to repeat history with Cracker Jack’s 1992 Fleer cards. Despite an almost exact duplicate of the campaign, the program sold just 60 million boxes vs.135 million the year before.
By 1993, the brand was willing to keep the card idea alive for one more year, but needed to cut even more costs. Cracker Jack’s management decided to eliminate the $500,000 royalty they paid to the Major League Baseball Player’s Association by issuing reprints of their 1915 cards. The end product was a set depicting 24 different players, most of whom had died before their target audience’s parents had even been born.
Once more, Stolz tried to bottle the lightning he’d had with the Topps cards. Proof that you can go to the well only so many times: The “reproduction” set made it into just 50 million boxes. By the end of this promotion, the team’s attitude was that they’d “done” cards and they didn’t work anymore.
By the mid-1990’s, Borden had been acquired by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. “Borden had been very consistent up to that point in keeping the cost of each prize around one cent,” remembered Stolz. “Surprisingly, it really started to reduce the cost of prizes when they began trying to sell the brand.” Peter Dunn, general manager of Niche Grocery-Borden Foods, remarked at the time, “When I go to a cocktail party, normally mild-mannered people, upon hearing what I do for a living, get right in my face and snarl: ‘Fix the damn Cracker Jack prizes!’”
Borden sold Cracker Jack to Frito Lay in 1998. “At the end, they were only selling 46 million units of the brand,” Stolz recalls sadly. Would Cracker Jack have been able to sustain the success of the 1991 promotion if they had stayed the course with Topps? “The collector-card boom lasted until the end of 1994,” Berger says. “Yes, they would have been able to sustain or beat their 1991 results.”
Cracker Jack’s Topps card set will go in promotion history as one of the most successful in-pack promotions ever. Unfortunately, the succeeding two promotions will be remembered as living proof of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Rod Taylor is senior VP of CoActive Marketing. He can be reached at RTaylor@getcoactive.com.
- With more than 23 billion prizes distributed, Cracker Jack is the world’s largest user of toys.
- A near mint, complete set of Cracker Jack’s 1915 card set has been valued as high as $60,000.
- Sailor Jack, the Cracker Jack mascot, was reputedly modeled after company founder F.W. Rueckheim’s grandson, Robert.
- More than 3,000 pounds of molasses are used per day to sweeten Cracker Jack.
- July 5th is National Cracker Jack Day.