The Fall of JELL-O (and How to Stay Relevant in a Changing Marketplace)
For about 70 years, JELL-O solved a number of significant problems for consumers.
This unique gelatin product wasn’t just a food additive; it was a way to repurpose leftovers and bring loved ones together at mealtime. During the Great Depression, the preservation power of gelatin made JELL-O an affordable way to save food.
Cheap and versatile, JELL-O offered a convenient way to satisfy appetites and entertain guests throughout the mid- 1900s, especially when certain ingredients were scarce or rationed during wartime.
But in the decades after World War II ended, the problems that JELL-O had initially solved went away. Cheap food items did not impress a wealth-building American society, and wartime staples became repellant. In the 1970s, JELL-O languished as a children’s snack and hospital dessert.
As the years went on, JELL-O was marketed as a diet food through a diversity of flavors, textures, and sugar-free options, but its popularity continued to wane.
Though JELL-O is still a beloved product in some parts of the country, the notable trend toward natural foods and non-chemical ingredients has left JELL-O floundering in its wake.1
A revolutionary product and a champion of household goods for the better part of a century has descended into irrelevance.
Why is this?
When it comes to running a sustainable, long-term business, the problems you solve are as important as the products you offer. As a business owner, one of the worst situations you can put yourself in is trying to solve the wrong problem — or not adapting your product to the current problems of the consumer.
In the 1990s, JELL-O attempted to be a solution for consumer problems, like the lack of diet-friendly desserts, but that problem was far less substantial than the ones it had solved before.
In its early days, JELL-O was a must-have, and it became a nice-to-have. That shift will rattle the margins of any product and shake its grip on the market. In order to thrive in the 21st century and beyond, JELL-O must showcase its versatility once more to solve newer, more agitating problems.
Determining Which Problems Matter Most
Great products often solve multiple problems for customers, but you want to focus on the one or two problems that hurt the most. You also need to be hearing from your target market directly so you can use the language they use.
The more intense the pain points are, the more people will be actively seeking a solution — and willing to pay for it. If it’s not a big issue, people may say they want the solution, but they could probably still do without it.
This is an enormous trap for entrepreneurs trying to launch products. When they first tell others about their solution, those people are often enthusiastic, saying they would buy the new product; but when it comes time to open their wallets, they’re much more conservative — to the death of the fledgling idea.
If the pain points your product solves aren’t obvious at first, it doesn’t mean you can’t bring your solution to the market — it just means you need to find out where your solution fits in the greater context of your potential customer’s life.
For example, does anyone really need carbonated water?
No one goes around gnashing their teeth or moaning for the lack of carbonated water. And yet, in the late 2010s, the carbonated water brand LaCroix surged because its product was solving a couple key problems for a certain set of people.
Let’s talk quickly about what those problems were.
If you sell water, you might say that one problem you're solving is thirst. But lots of products satisfy thirst.
While thirst is indeed one piece of the puzzle, it’s not specific enough to explain why someone would choose to buy carbonated water. Here are a few other things that might drive the purchase:
- The desire for something fun to drink that is still healthy
- To have something available to drink to replace soda or alcohol in the moment when one is tempted to drink them
- The need for an interesting alternative drink at a party
- To support health values or a change in diet that includes reducing sugar or calories
- To look like or fit in with other people who drink this type of beverage
- To build the habit of drinking more water during the day
If I had to choose which of these have been the most significant in the decision-making process for consumers, it would be #4 — followed closely by #5.
Those two reasons, in fact, were compelling enough to drive sky-high sales for LaCroix.
The signs were in the market: A new wave of consumers began spurning high-sugar beverages and even alcohol in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. Carbonated water (especially the fruit-flavored, unsweetened kind) served as a refreshing, guilt-free replacement. It became the drink you could hold in your hand at a party and still feel like part of the group.
The power of social influence, combined with the need to conform to a certain lifestyle — and all its material trappings — is very strong.
The change in consumer values created a need that LaCroix’s product met perfectly, and then it became part of the “way of life” for those people.
The Key to Staying Relevant in the Market
To be able to appeal to others with your products, it’s important to understand what’s behind your market’s needs and wants — the psychology of why people buy things. This is the key to staying relevant as tastes and trends change over time.
How many problems does your product solve? List as many reasons you can think of that a person might want or need to buy your product. Some will be “fringe” issues, but you can probably come up with at least a couple big problems that may drive a purchase.
Think about your potential customer. Where does it hurt? If you can, ask your target market what they believe the problem is. (What they say may not even be the real problem, but you will still need information on what people think the problem is.)
LaCroix is a business, brand, and product wrapped into one. But your business may at some point develop multiple brands or products. As you think through what problem you solve, remember that your business will often solve a larger problem (or set of problems) than your product does.
You’ll want to use language that is broad enough to include your present and future product offering. Even if you only have one product right now, it can be useful to create separate identities for your business, brand, and product so that you have the freedom to expand in the future.
Exercise: What Problem Do You Solve?
What problem do you solve?
Consider this a judgment-free brainstorming session. Think about the kinds of problems your product might solve, then consider the larger problem your business is solving. Suspend your internal critic and write down whatever you can think of. Go for the obvious answers before you try to dig into the non-obvious ones.
This is an edited excerpt from my book Mission, Market, Message: The Actionable Guide to Marketing for Small Business Owners, which you can purchase on Amazon.
- Kim, I. A., & Houston, J. (2020, November 25). How Jell-O went from a holiday dinner staple to having slipping sales. https://www.businessinsider.com/rise-and-fall-of-jell-o-gelatin-snacks-2019-12