How Lunchables Revitalized Oscar Mayer

In the mid-80s, Oscar Mayer had a problem. Bologna sausage meat was once a dominant force in America's domestic food. As Library Hist notes, it established its popularity as a cheap protein during the Great Depression. In the 1980s, though, more health-conscious consumers were turning away from the meat, depriving Oscar Mayer of a key income source.

The Atlantic has chronicled how, after focus groups and brainstorms, a team devised an idea of a bologna lunch product that would be marketed for its convenience. It would also include cheese and crackers, as consumers appreciate variety. The whole thing would be contained in a plastic tray that was inspired by TV dinners, and the product would be called "Lunchables."

Interestingly, the concept for Lunchables was initially conceived as an adult product. "It was seen as a convenient solution to lunch for working mothers, working dads, and the like," Greg Guidotti, head of marketing at Oscar Mayer, told The Atlantic. However, further focus groups revealed that children enjoyed assembling their food so much that the team altered its marketing strategy to target this younger demographic.

Lunchables' success and bologna's future

Lunchables proved to be the Hail Mary that Oscar Mayer needed. In the 12 months after their release in 1988, sales exceeded $200 million, which U.S. Inflation Calculator says would exceed $470 million today. However, Lunchables' success proved even greater than that, as Credit Suisse told The Atlantic that Lunchables sold for $1.36 billion in 2019. "In the packaged-food world, that's a home run, especially for an established business," Robert Moskow, one of the bank's senior equity analysts, told the magazine.

Part of this success was because, as SF Gate reports, the newly debuted product managed to get 50% of customers to buy more Lunchables. Bologna was back on the menu, despite ever-present concerns about the relatively unhealthy nature of Lunchables meat.

However, Eater says bologna is ready for a nostalgic renaissance. We've seen artisanal macaroni and cheese, donuts, and hot dogs — interesting takes on bologna sandwiches seem like a logical choice for a food trend. "The humble bologna sandwich is like a minimalist 1950s chair or a three-chord punk single," Eater quotes from a now-missing page of Oscar Mayer's website. If some kind of nostalgic reimagining of the basic lunch meat comes into play, we can bet that Lunchables will feature Oscar Mayer's bologna as the trend's focal point.