Kraft reveals revamped mac and cheese, 50 million boxes later

Usually when companies come out with a new and improved formula, they want the public to know. But when the item in question is an iconic food product, the calculus gets tougher. Every marketer remembers with a shudder the cautionary tale of New Coke.

So when Kraft Heinz reached inside the blue box to tweak the recipe for its macaroni and cheese, it chose to whisper rather than shout the results.

A new formula that removed artificial preservatives and swapped out artificial dyes for a combination of paprika, ...
A new formula that removed artificial preservatives and swapped out artificial dyes for a combination of paprika, annatto and turmeric had been under development for three years. Photo: Bloomberg

A new formula that removed artificial preservatives and swapped out artificial dyes for a combination of paprika, annatto and turmeric had been under development for three years, and in April Kraft announced that it planned to make the switch. But when the reformulated version hit shelves in December, only customers paying careful attention to the ingredients listed on the side of the box would have known. Even the orangish colour of the mac and cheese remained the same.

"We've sold well over 50 million boxes with essentially no one noticing," said Greg Guidotti, vice president for meal solutions at Kraft Heinz.

"This was absolutely brilliant of them to change it and not say anything," said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at the market research firm Mintel.

Now Kraft is getting a little more vocal.

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A new ad campaign plays up the element of surprise involved with the company's new mac and cheese formula, with 15- and 30-second broadcast and online video spots featuring the former late-night television host Craig Kilborn and the tag line, "It's changed. But it hasn't".

Kraft was concerned that people would perceive a change in flavour that wasn't really there if it made too big a deal about the different formula as soon as it started using it. In fact, when the company made the announcement last spring that it would be tweaking the ingredients, Mr Guidotti said, people began posting on social media their concerns that the mac and cheese would taste different.

"We knew we wanted to address that tension," he said.

Some on social media even said, shortly after the April announcement, that they thought the mac and cheese tasted different when, in reality, they were still eating the previous version. This is a psychological quirk, well known to food manufacturers, that can stymie well-meaning attempts to make processed foods healthier.

Overcoming such a hard-wired preconception required stealth.

"Our first advice to them was not to tell anyone about it, which is unusual for an ad agency," said Adam Chasnow, vice president and executive creative director for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Kraft's partner in developing the campaign. "We're going to focus on the fact that things are still the same."

Mr Guidotti said that since the company revealed that it had been using the new formula for some time, customer feedback has been generally positive, although there was a spate of posts from customers claiming that they actually had noticed the change. "When you say something, people will say, 'Oh yeah, I knew that,' " he said. "There's psychology involved in there as well."

Before the campaign began, Kraft and Crispin Porter & Bogusky worried that a sharp-eyed fan or a food blogger would notice the changes to the ingredients list and act as a spoiler.

"We were always concerned," Mr Guidotti said. "Should consumers find out sooner, we had contingencies. We had a lot of different ways of launching our advertising sooner, launching our social sooner, having more specific responses."

None of that proved to be necessary, not that Mr Guidotti or his team are complaining.

"I think we probably did five times as much work, but it was all worth it," he said.

New York Times