On paper, raisins seem like they’d be exactly the sort of thing nostalgia-obsessed millennials might be into — curled up on the couches of their rental apartments, watching ’90s TV reboots, absently popping raisins out of tiny red boxes into their 22- to 37-year-old mouths.
They were, after all, a common snack of childhood, the eponymous ants of ants on a log, the chicken nuggets of dried fruit. Millennials are a notoriously nostalgic generation, with their Polaroids and their affection for defunct cookies and Technicolor unicorns — shouldn’t raisins tap into the same nostalgia for our neon, latchkey, Dunkaroo-inflected childhoods?
Certainly, that’s what Sun-Maid seems to be hoping. Last year, the iconic raisin brand hired a new president and CEO, Harry Overly, whose job, as the Fresno Bee’s Robert Rodriguez explained it, is “to shake things up in raisin land.” Next year, the company will launch a national campaign — its first in a decade — “focused on rekindling fondness for the brand.”
The struggle is not to change people’s minds about raisins so much as to get people to think about raisins at all. Or as Overly puts it, “Raisins are not a top-of-the-mind snack.” Sun-Maid is hardly the only brand trying to tap into vague but warm feelings to reinvigorate sales.
Last year, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association revived the famous “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner” tagline. For this year’s Super Bowl commercials, Coke, Pepsi, and the country of Australia all made plays to conjure up the past. This summer, Planters temporarily reintroduced its beloved tubs of Cheez Balls. The trick is turning ambient fondness into actual sales.
Raisins are for everyone
Part of the problem, Overly said, is that raisins are very strongly associated with childhood, and then nothing else after that. The same parents who buy raisins for their toddlers “may not buy [raisins] again unless they are making cookies for their grandkids,” he said. By his estimate, raisin consumption has dropped about 10 percent over the past five years. (He attributes this in part to Sun-Maid’s business strategy; it’s not entirely the fault of millennials not eating enough raisins.)
This isn’t the first time raisins have found themselves at a crossroads. In the 1970s and ’80s, Food & Wine recalls, the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) struggled to stir up America’s latent passion for raisins with commercials that “tried everything from branding raisins as ‘nature’s candy’ to slo-mo shots of them as sexy salad and dessert accessories.” None of it worked.
Raisins, then as now, “lacked a cool factor.” The solution turned out to be a Motown group of singing raisins. The California Raisins made their debut in a 1986 Sun-Maid commercial on behalf of the CALRAB. Sales jumped 20 percent.
So far, we don’t know much about Sun-Maid’s plans for the great raisin rekindling. What we do know: The company is planning to run ads that “play on the nostalgia and trust Sun-Maid raisins represent,” and the brand is leaning into its more experimental flavors. Overly has hired a vice president of “insight and innovation” to oversee the relaunch of Sun-Maid’s “flavored sour raisin snacks.”
Unlike plain raisin-flavored raisins, the sour raisins come in watermelon and strawberry, are flavored with natural fruit juice, and are found in the grocery store snack aisle, rather than with the dried fruit.
Raisins aren’t the only snack of the recent past struggling for relevance. Cereal, too, has been on a nostalgia-fueled mission to win back consumers who might be, as one analyst put it to Kim Severson at the New York Times, “less interested in industrially processed grains as a meaningful start to their day.” For cereal, the solution might be a subtle repositioning. Cereal companies “have to embrace that people love the flavor and texture of cereal and the vintage nature, but it’s not about breakfast,” said pastry chef Christina Tosi, who also consults for Kellogg.
“Breakfast cereal is a powerful engine of nostalgia,” wrote Severson. But — outside of one particular bran — are raisins?
“Foods become comfort foods because they’re associated with childhood,” explains Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and the author of the book Why You Eat What You Eat. But it takes more than that. Not everything you happened to eat in prepubescence is comforting. And raisins, she observes, have a few strikes against them.
So if we love childhood so much, why aren’t we eating more raisins?
One issue: smell — or rather, lack thereof. Raisins “aren’t particularly aromatic,” Herz points out. As a result, “they’re less likely to have that emotional evocation.” Nor are raisins particularly special.
“Raisins could have been in your lunchbox any day of the week, and so there isn’t anything especially wonderful associated with them,” Herz says. You could have really liked raisins — you could still really like raisins! — but they don’t necessarily inspire a deep sense of well-being. Nor do they particularly evoke a specific sense of time or place.
Raisins, in general, aren’t a social food. They are not a meal, eaten with family; they are a snack, eaten wherever, whenever, and potentially alone. Their versatility is exactly what makes them lack nostalgia. Even cereal might evoke memories of a family breakfast, or at least, watching cereal commercials about other people eating family breakfasts. Raisins don’t necessarily gesture to anything beyond themselves.
Complicating raisin matters further, if they do bring back memories, they are not always positive. Raisins, to be sure, are polarizing; perhaps the most fundamental obstacle for raisins is that they are not chocolate chips. For every millennial who feels fondly toward them, there is one still traumatized by the disappointment of a raisin-heavy trick-or-treat haul. Raisins, while high in sugar, are not candy. It is a difficult truth to accept.
You might think, as I thought, that the sugar content of otherwise-virtuous raisins could be a problem in this anti-sugar age. A single-serve, 1.5-ounce box of raisins has 25 grams of sugar. That is a lot. But MaryLeigh Bliss, the vice president of content at the millennial-focused research and marketing firm Y-Pulse, says the research shows it’s more complicated than that.
“The nostalgic foods millennials seem to be drawn to are the ones that are more indulgences,” she says. “If it tastes great and it makes them feel good emotionally, they’re okay with splurging on it.”
This is not an anti-raisin hit piece. It’s just that raisins fall into an inconvenient middle ground. Raisins, she proposes, are “healthy, but not healthy enough.” They’re not a treat, but they’re also not, at this moment, a health food. This makes them a particularly difficult sell: Millennials are particularly sensitive to products that they were taught were “healthy” as kids but about which they now have new information.
“They’ll reject them to the point where the industry will make a huge shift,” Bliss says, citing the rise of Greek yogurt — less sugary than the yogurts millennials grew up with — as an example. “Raisins fit into that category.”
It remains to be seen if sour raisins are the answer. Perhaps they will inspire memories of simpler, sweeter times, but in a new and sophisticated way. These are sour times, after all. And millennials do tend to be adventurous eaters. “I’m not sure sour is something that’s necessarily trending,” Bliss says. “But it’s a different approach.”