Even the greatest consumer brands in history have had to undergo some alterations to keep them fresh and relevant to the public. After nearly 50 years of innovation in the ham category, Hormel Foods decided it was time to assess and renovate its premium Cure 81 ham brand — just in time for the portfolio to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013.

Hormel Foods launched the Cure 81 brand in 1963, and at the time it was the first boneless ham product to hit the market. Terrill Bacon, associate product managerfor Hormel Foods, notes that the company had it right when the brand was created the first time, by involving the consumer at every step.

“Everything from our packaging, to our advertising message, everyone involved in the process had that consumer at the center of everything that they did,” he explains. “We took the same approach [revamping the line] the last couple years — working directly with consumers, and learning what it is they’re looking for in the ham category — to make sure that we had the gold standard in the category and a product line that was relevant for our consumers.”

The steps to renovating the Cure 81 brand were meticulous and measured, Bacon relays, starting with a “Drivers of Liking” study, in which the Hormel Foods team tested the Cure 81 product in a consumer panel setting to see where Cure 81 hams ranked on a variety of attributes.

“The goal was to learn where we were, and what were some of the changes the consumers were looking for?” Bacon says. “We learned the preferences for the appearance — that knobby, off-the-bone appearance was something the consumer was looking for. Then, from a formulation standpoint, they wanted a sweeter taste profile, and a smokier, more robust, smoke flavor.”

From that research, Hormel Foods decided to carry the process forward to get the Cure 81 brand more in alignment with consumer demand, at which point, the rest of the R&D, sales and operations teams were brought in to work on the project. Bacon says the initial challenge came from those who were passionate about the brand in-house.

“You have a brand like Cure 81, that’s loved within this organization, there are a lot of people that have worked with it for a long, long time have a lot of passion about it,” Bacon explains. “So whenever you start talking about making a drastic change, [there is going to be] a certain amount of the pushback initially.”

Joe Peine, superintendent, Cured & Smoked Meats/Value Added Fresh Pork, says the operations team had its doubts at first, but embraced the concept of better matching consumers needs after Bacon and his team offered up their research.

“As we started doing line trials in the plant, they started saying, ‘Wow. This really looks pretty good,’” he explains. “They really were invigorated, and very positive, and obviously, sales have been very good, which is helping to keep the morale up.”

Change is always a little bit tougher in a plant, adds Peine, but once the employees saw the proof and then a very sharp-looking finished product, no one disputed the change. The most obvious alteration to the product that also was the most challenging for the operations team, was the retention of the fat layer on the outside of the product.

“The employees making the cuts had to go from taking almost the entire fat layer off, to leaving a specific target thickness on,” Peine says. “That was very difficult, considering they’d cleared it all off for years and years — we had told them for years, ‘It needs to be clean.’”

Peine makes it clear that, operationally, the change made sense, but it required a recalibrating of employees’ mindset around what constituted quality for this product line in the consumers’ eyes.

“We talked about quality, and the employees felt that we were hurting the quality of the ham by doing this [new cut],” he explains. “So we had to remind them that quality is defined by the customer: We want a certain amount of fat on there, and it’s OK. That’s what we want.”

Furthermore, Hormel Foods modified a few elements of the production process to create a ham with a knobby appearance, again responding to consumers’ demand through the panels it conducted as part of the process.

The second significant alteration to the product itself came on the formulation and processing side. As mentioned previously, the R&D team at Hormel Foods found that consumers preferred a sweeter, smokier flavor. To get the smokier flavor, Hormel Foods invested time and money in switching to a natural smoke cycle. Peine says the product now spends three-and-a-half hours in a smokehouse, when in the past, the product received a minimal amount of natural smoke.

“Even though it’s not much of a process change for us — we just extended the cycle of more natural smoke — the three and a half hours of natural smoke gives the product much more smoke flavor,” he adds. “It’s not overwhelming, but it gives it that, and the color now is natural.”

On top of making the product flavor more robust via natural smoke, the Hormel Foods teamhas made several changes to the flavor varieties and overall profile of the foundation product. In response to consumer research, Hormel Foods sweetened the Cure 81 line, adding brown sugar to the base flavor profile. The entire Cure 81 portfolio features this sweeter, smokier profile as the foundation for the brand, Bacon says.

“Everything is very consistent across the portfolio,” he says. “Our diced and cubed items are using a Cure 81 muscle block. There’s no background meat or anything injected in it. It’s all natural juice products.

“Anything with a Cure 81 label is a natural juice product and 100% naturally hardwood smoked,” Bacon adds.

Additionally, at presstime, Cure 81 products were available in Classic, Brown Sugar, Honey and Pepper Coated. Peine says the flavor changes added a few complexities to the process, but the operations team has been intrigued by the creativity the reformulation has allowed.

“Years ago, the line featured a honey flavor, but we hadn’t had it for more than five years,” he says. “Then the Pepper Coated has been very intriguing, because it has a very unique taste where, if you like pepper at all, it’s great.”

Overall, Peine believes the changes have made the operations team more passionate about the brand, and Bacon agrees. Whereas the old process was partially automated in a variety of areas, Bacon says that it’s even more of a manually oriented operation area now.

“It truly is a handcrafted process,” he says.

A golden year?

Cure 81 marks its 50th anniversary in 2013, and although the challenges of renovating the brand and formulation are finished, the next steps won’t be any less hectic. Fortunately for the company, Bacon says the overhaul has resonated very well with customers and consumers thus far. But a large test looms in the near term.

“We expect the momentum to continue into 2013, as we ramp up the support for the holiday timeframe of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter,” he states.

The new Cure 81 products hit the market just as the Easter holiday was getting underway in 2012, far too late to make a notable impact. Thus, this holiday season will be very important to cementing the brand changes in the minds of consumers. Add to that the ramping up around the 50th anniversary of the brand, and the near-term pressure on the brand to make its impact is significant.

Bacon believes the brand has a few things working in its favor as it enters this stretch run. First, Cure 81 has a legacy of quality that it can fall back on, which creates a foundation of families who have relied upon the brand for serving their family dinner needs, he says.

Also, since the change, Hormel Foods has increased its marketing support of the brand in a category he says does not get a lot of support — using national full-page FSIs and coupons to convince consumers to try the product.

Bacon also lauds the breadth of items in the Cure 81 portfolio as a significant advantage in the market — from diced and cubed items, to boneless ham steaks, quarters, halves, wholes and boneless items, to bone-in spirals that are popular around the holidays.

Yet, despite these advantages, Bacon understands that the category has become crowded and competitive in 49 years.

“The biggest challenge for us now is, we’ve got this great portfolio that we completely optimized, and we’re in an execution phase at this point in trying to fill distribution,” he explains. “A lot of the new items that we’ve introduced are designed to try and have a portfolio on the shelf that [meets] the needs of consumers 365 days a year, not just at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas timeframes. So building distribution on a lot of those key items is really the focus for us.”

The brand’s expertise and legacy is expected to help further build out the relationships with customers who carry the product, in order to hopefully stabilize the category’s real estate in the store, Bacon adds.

“As a premium brand in the category, one area that differentiates us from our competitors is, we’ve got a very talented team from a category-management perspective on smoked meats — a category that retailers don’t spend a lot of time on outside of the holidays thinking about it,” he says. “And with the success of the optimized Cure 81 products, we have had a number of customers ask for Cure 81 products in other categories [and areas of the meat department]. There are projects ongoing, some of which are probably shorter term than not.”

After nearly one year offering the new Cure 81 products, Hormel Foods believes it found the “cure” to what ailed this legacy brand and made the right choice in transforming the product line. As Hormel Foods celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Cure 81 brand in 2013, it hopes the passion of employees for the changes will become contagious and spread to consumers — both old and new.

Nevertheless, like most meat processors, Hormel Foods also knows that success is best measured long-term and has thrown its support behind the brand, hoping to revolutionize a category that has become commoditized in many ways.