CHICAGO — Under new ownership, the Keebler brand is beginning to roll out updated recipes and packaging for its cookie brands, as well as a new look for Ernie the Elf.

A year ago, the Ferrero Group acquired Kellogg Co.’s selected cookie, pie crust and ice cream cone businesses in a transaction valued at $1.3 billion. The portfolio includes Keebler, Famous Amos, Mother’s and Murray cookies and Little Brownie Bakers, supplier of Girl Scouts cookies. Since then, the research and development team at related company Ferrara Candy Co. in partnership with Ferrero has been busy overhauling the decades-old brands with new formulations, packaging and marketing strategies — much in the same way it has reinvigorated Butterfinger, Baby Ruth and other confectionery brands previously owned by Nestle USA.

The effort to date for the Keebler business has included new recipes for Chips Deluxe, Fudge Stripes and Sandies cookies. Key formulation changes include the removal of high-fructose corn syrup and a switch to natural vanilla.

“We really started the minute we closed on the sale of the business, taking this beloved, iconic 150-year-old master brand Keebler and really reinvigorating it and bringing it to life,” Natalie Hagstrom, general manager of cookies at Ferrara, told Food Business News. “We’re enhancing our ingredients with more ‘made with real’. We know for the US consumer, it’s really table stakes, shorter ingredient statements, more real ingredients. With Chips Deluxe Original, you’ll see ‘made with more real chocolate.’ On Fudge Stripes you’ll see ‘made with real Keebler fudge,’ and on our Sandies brand you’ll see real Madagascar vanilla has been added to our ingredients statement.”

New packaging was developed to increase quality and freshness, featuring modern and unifying designs across the Keebler cookie brands. The products will be available in an on-the-go format and variety packs to meet consumer snacking behaviors.

“The cookie category is impulsive; half of the purchases are not planned, so for it to be a purchase driver it had to stand out on shelf,” Ms. Hagstrom said. “The packaging had to be important. We had to make sure all of our displays, all of our point of sale, is really eye catching, popping, relevant and really talked to the consumer in a meaningful way.”

A comprehensive marketing campaign launching in August will highlight the ingredient changes and brand story through digital and social channels and in-store displays.

“The last time many of these brands had been in any type of relevance in the consumer activation space, it was at a time when most of the way people were consuming media was television,” Ms. Hagstrom said. “Obviously the landscape has changed quite dramatically, so bringing them to activation on channels beyond traditional television, whether it be digital or social in any way, shape or form, that was an interesting insight. We wanted to make sure we were talking to the consumer in the ways they were consuming messages.”

Since the acquisition, Ferrara, in partnership with Ferrero, has increased investment in marketing and shopper programs to support the business. Keebler cookies have seen a 55% increase in sales since early March as consumers continue to stock up on beloved indulgences during the pandemic.

“In a post-COVID world, we want to make sure our messaging is relevant to the consumer, so we did a lot of social listening to how consumers were responding … and it made us feel good that the path we were on was the one we should keep,” Ms. Hagstrom said. “When you think about what’s on advertising right now in our Perfectly Fudgy campaign, it’s really product focused, it’s about the togetherness of families, it’s about the craftsmanship and quality in the magical world of Ernie and the elves. We are making sure we take all of the elements and bring them forward because they were relevant pre-COVID, they are relevant during COVID, and we know they will be relevant post-COVID.”

Ferrara Candy Co. was formed in 2012 with the merger of Ferrara Pan Candy Co., Inc. and Farley’s & Sathers Candy Co., Inc. Its core portfolio of brands includes Trolli, Black Forest, Brach’s, Sathers, RedHots, Lemonheads, Jujyfruits, Atomic FireBall, Boston Baked Beans and several others.

In 2017, Ferrara Candy Co. was acquired by the Luxembourg-based Ferrero Group, the maker of Nutella, Tic Tac and Kinder brands. A few months later, the Ferrero Group acquired Nestle USA’s confectionery business for approximately $2.8 billion. The transaction added such non-chocolate brands as SweeTarts, Laffy Taffy, Nerds, FunDip, PixyStix, Gobstopper, BottleCaps, Spree and Runts to Ferrara Candy Co.’s portfolio.

Nestle USA’s former chocolate brands, now managed by Parsippany, NJ-based Ferrero North America, were revamped by the Ferrara team in partnership with Ferrero following the transaction. Enhancements made to the Butterfinger and Baby Ruth brands included the removal of a preservative, improved peanut roasting technology and double-layer packaging to preserve flavor and freshness.

“You start with storied, iconic brands that have really high household awareness, and it’s really just returning them to their iconic status,” Ms. Hagstrom said. “They’ve been starved of resources and investments in product, packaging and messaging to the consumer.

“When we talked to consumers when we bought the businesses, everyone could talk about the memories and the positive associations they had with them, but it wasn’t something in their recent past, so how do you make it more relevant and bring it to their core thought process and decision making process and consideration set? When you start from place of high awareness and great love, it’s easy then to just make sure you invest in all the things that can return it to that status…

“Very similar to the Nestle portfolio, we wanted to make sure we keep our existing consumers … but then also found a way to bring new consumers, whether it be whole new generations or just the people who haven’t considered us in a long time. Both of those needed to be true for us to continue to proceed down this path.”

Now with 33 brands spanning the categories of candy and cookies, Ferrara,  in partnership with Ferrero, is planning co-branded product innovation that may bring together its classic candy brands with the former Nestle and Keebler products. Set to launch this holiday season is a decorating kit combining Keebler cookies and Ferrara candy.

“It’s when it makes both brand equities elevated and it’s consumer desired that we will continue to leverage the equities of these powerhouse brands across the portfolio,” Ms. Hagstrom said.