“We recognized that as a great business opportunity,” said Kelsey Rice, senior brand communications manager for Velveeta.
Velveeta wanted to make a big swing, not just to boost sales but to establish itself as part of the culture. “We think Velveeta is an iconic brand, and it should be seen and viewed as such,” she said.
To change its image, Velveeta has had to change the way it talks about itself.
That means fewer commercials about affordable, meltable cheese, and more marketing stunts like cheese-scented nail polish and pricey Velveeta martinis.
A cheese star is born
Asked about the brand’s history, a representative pointed to a 2005 book published by Kraft, called “The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Cheese,” which states that Kraft introduced Velveeta in 1928, a year after funding research at Rutgers University about a processed cheese it was developing.
By the late 1920s, Kraft was calling Velveeta a hit.
“Never in the history of our business have we offered the trade a cheese product that has made such an immediate success as Velveeta,” said a 1929 ad aimed at retailers. “It seems to be a perfect product.”
Not only was Velveeta “delicious” and “healthful,” the ad continued, but it spread “like butter” and melted easily when cooked.
The brand’s marketing evolved with the times. An ad from the 1940s pointed to Velveeta as a smart war-time ingredient, offering a recipe for Velveeta Pudding with Spanish Sauce, “a hearty main dish that saves you ration points.”
A 1950s ad suggested to young mothers that “while you’re weight-watching, and also trying to get your needed supply of milk nutrients, make your desserts Velveeta and fresh fruit.”
In the following decades, American consumption of processed cheese continued to increase. In 1996, it hit a peak of 8.75 pounds of consumption per capita, according to the USDA. Then things took a turn.
Not a food, but a product
Two decades ago, consumption started to fall. People worried about the health impacts of highly processed foods, and started eating more natural cheese.
Even as it changed its marketing approach, Velveeta stuck with a few clear messages. The product is easy to deal with. It’s affordable — Walmart’s website shows a 32-ounce package of Velveeta on sale for about $6.50. And most importantly, it can melt.
Years after processed cheese came on the market, it still melts better than natural cheeses such as cheddar noted Chad Galer, vice president of food safety and product research at Dairy Management Inc., a dairy trade association. Processed cheese contain ingredients that allow it to melt into a type of gel when it heats up, he explained. When natural cheese heats up, oil seeps out, giving it that globby texture.
“We’re trying to make natural cheese melt like Velveeta,” Galer said. “But we haven’t unlocked that yet.”
That unique melting quality has been Velveeta’s advertising focus for most of its life, said Rice. Now, it’s trying something new.
Velveeta nail polish and martinis
In 2018, Velveeta sales fell about 4.5% to $1.1 billion from the year before, according to IRI. In 2019, sales fell again — by about 2.4%.
But, during the pandemic, Velveeta benefited from people’s interest in comfort foods and easy-to-cook meals. In 2020, Velveeta sales surged by nearly 24%.
Then came the stunts.
Bad reviews don’t really matter for Velveeta, which is often the butt of the joke.
“Overall, we’re really pleased with the way the world has received the Velveeta Veltini,” said Rice. The most important thing is to get people to think about Velveeta again.
When brands make splashy marketing moves, “people pay attention,” said Bob Samples, executive-in-residence at Western Michigan University, where he teaches students about food and consumer goods marketing. “They go to the store, they remember the name, they buy it.”
So far, Velveeta seems to be holding onto that pandemic boost. After dipping 1.1% in 2021, sales are up 3.2% through July of this year, according to IRI.
Plus, new ad campaign or not, people know what they’re getting when they buy Velveeta.
“People know what to expect,” Samples said. There’s a “comfort feeling that goes with that.”