How Spam Came to Rule the World

What do you think of when you hear the word, “Spam”? First off, we are not talking about electronic junk mail.

If you are thinking luncheon meat, you probably have a mixed reaction at best. For most of the grocery product’s 8-decade history, Spam has been disparaged and dismissed. The harshest critics cite is as inedible and mock it as “Something Posing As Meat” or “Scientifically Processed Animal Matter”. Yet, over 8.5 billion cans have been sold since Hormel launched the product in 1937.

Americans buy 113 million cans of Spam annually. This means 3.8 cans are consumed every second in the United States. To keep up with demand, the slaughterhouse next to the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota butchers 20,000 pigs a day. So, how can we reconcile what is so bashed with what is bought (and stolen) in mass amounts?

Spam was successful right out of the gate, having grabbed 18% market share in its first year of sales. By 1940, 7 out of 10 of Americans had tried Spam. This was largely attributed to an economy still suffering from the Depression and it began Spam’s longstanding association with low-cost and frugality. Sales still spike when times are tough.

That has been true during the pandemic as Bloomberg Businessweek reported in June, 2020. Demand for canned meat boomed across the globe in 2020. U.S. sales surged more than 70% during quarantine. The product’s long shelf life, shortages of fresh meat, and the economy have helped. The article hit on another driver of demand, “there’s also something deeper going on — a return to comfort food and nostalgia in troubled times.”

During World War II, Spam became a staple for Allied troops who consumed 100 million pounds of the product. The military served for it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This did not mean the soldiers loved it or even liked it. Grunts referred to Spam as “ham that didn’t pass its physical” or “meatloaf without basic training”. Similar to the history of Coca-Cola, Spam was introduced to local residents wherever troops were stationed. It remains incredibly popular in South Korea, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii.

After the war, and not by choice, Hormel was forced to invest a great deal in advertising and promotion. Soldiers that had returned home were not interested in consuming the same food the military had forced on them. Hormel countered this opposition by providing recipes that integrated Spam into a range of dishes. In 1949, the company established the Hormel Girls, a unique traveling troupe of 60 women who danced and played music featuring Hormel products. Post-war advertisements attempted to distance Spam from the meat-in-a-can image by casting it as a prime dinner ingredient.

By the early 1970’s the brand name, Spam, became the “Kleenex” of the food industry. It was used generically to describe any tinned meat product or luncheon meat. When it comes to Spam-like products, there are many. In Canada alone, you can buy Klik, Kam, and Prem. Then there are parent brands putting out “luncheon meat”, such as, Holiday, Bristol, Hereford, Armour, Majesty, Black Label, and White Crown.

Over the years, Spam has prompted liberal amounts of jokes and countless pop culture references. It seems we cannot get enough of putting Spam down. That is why the brand has failed to move upstream. The roots of the jokes are well founded, given the constitution of the product.

Enduring Formulation

Spam is a combination of ham, pork, sugar, salt, water, potato starch and a hint of sodium nitrite. According to Hormel’s website, the latter helps Spam, “keep its gorgeous pink color”. The word “gorgeous” being an interesting choice. The meat is vacuum-sealed in a can and does not require refrigeration. Spam can last for 5 years. Hormel likens it to, “meat with a pause button.” Hormel really needs a new copywriter.

It is very affordable (approximately US$2.70 a can) and accessible (available in 44 countries and 99% of American grocery stores), and is easy to transport (Spam’s enviable molecular stability is encased in a tough tin that withstands drops from high heights).

The meat resembles a small, pink jiggly brick. It is soft and easy to slice. For many, the clear gelatin (or aspic) is a little off putting. Spam comes precooked so can be eaten cold but most consumers cook it as part of a dish or heat it. It is basically made from the same stuff as hot dogs but with less unsavory meat sources. To give you a clue as to the Spam production process, employees are called “formulators”.

The product is not exactly healthy. A 12-ounce can is said to contain 6 servings. A single serving holds 16 grams of fat and that includes 6 grams of saturated fat. One serving also holds 33% of the daily recommended allowance of sodium and a good blast of cholesterol. If you were to chow down on the entire tin, you would be consuming nearly 100 grams of fat, more than 1,000 calories, 240 milligrams of cholesterol, and a heart pounding 4,696 milligrams of sodium.

Spam now comes in a low sodium format and a variety of flavors. There is Cheese, Hot & Spicy, Black Pepper, Jalapeño, Chorizo, Teriyaki, Hickory Smoked, Oven Roasted Turkey, Bacon, and Garlic amongst others. Hormel encourages consumers to use Spam in many ways. It can be grilled, pan-fried, broiled, sautéed, baked, and used in sandwiches, salads, pizzas, casseroles, and stir-fries.

Recipes range from traditional to downright puzzling. One can enjoy Spam-based lettuce wraps, wontons, potpies, corn chowder, bacon-wrapped Spam, croissant surprise, asparagus roll-ups, and broccoli Spam soufflé. There is also Spam Wellington, Spam fries, and Spam pad Thai. For dessert, there is Spam macadamia nut sundaes, Spam brownies, and Spam upside-down pie (I have made none of this up).

The company has balanced honoring history and tradition with subtle efforts to change the Spam’s perception. This has resulted in a delightful and enduring brand. Nicole Behne, former Spam brand manager, says “You really can’t change the fabric of who you are. We have to embrace it and work with it.” It would be incredibly unproductive to fight certain associations and there is good sense to leverage the mostly good-natured attention Spam receives.

Hormel facilitates the Spam culture by offering products like a Spam joke book, Spam air fresheners, and Spam can wine charmers. If you visit Austin, Minnesota, you can check out the Spam museum. Over 80 state and regional fairs hold Spam cooking contests. Hormel’s marketing is definitely grassroots, there is no need for a Super Bowl ad buy.

Yet, the company seems to struggle with where to take Spam. The flavor extensions and healthier options suggest they want to sell more, more often, to more people. However, there is still decades of perception that Spam needs to combat.

Households consume Spam in significant amounts, but they do it like a dirty little secret. I believe it is placed at the back of the pantry so as not to invite judgment. Just think of the rise in revenue if consumers could be convinced to roll out the following amazing menu for guests or their own families.

It would start with Spam Nigiri on ginger rice and seared Spam potstickers with Tahini Sauce. Then comes quartered Spam jalapeño quesadillas and Spam sliders. Spam gnocchi soup could be offered from an ornate tureen. The main course may range from Spam skewered with pineapples, turkey Spam-stuffed pasta shells, and Spam Mahalo cabbage cups.

Spam fried rice and Spam scalloped potatoes would be great accompaniments. Lastly, if there is room, a beautiful Spam upside-down pie would top it off. Yes, I know, that isn’t going to happen. At least, not to that extent. So, it’s a good think that the Asian market is hot on Spam.

Adored in Asia

South Koreans consume more Spam than any other country except the U.S. and it even comes in fancy packaging. Spam flies off the shelves in the Philippines. Each citizen of Guam eats 16 cans annually. McDonalds and Burger King have recognized Spam’s appeal across the region, both chains feature it on menus across Asia.

Hawaiians eat 12 cans annually with most it in the form Spam musubi. Musubi is a popular snack and lunch food in Hawaii composed of a slice of grilled Spam on top of a block of rice, wrapped together with nori dried seaweed. Think of it as a porky twist on sushi. Mususbi is commonly found near cash registers in convenience stores.

When it comes to grocery stores, Hawaiian retailers have been forced to use various security methods to deter both amateur and professional Spam thieves. Proprietors now treat it like a pricey luxury item. Cans are put in shoplift-stopping plastic cases much like those that protect liquor bottles. Most thefts take place to flip the Spam for quick cash. There is even a Spam black market on the islands!

There are a few theories behind the ongoing crime spree. A change in the price of stolen goods being considered a felony, it’s convenient size. Eater.com suggests that because Hawaiian residents are no longer allowed to fish, Spam is their major source of protein. Whatever it is, the demand is high. Thefts range from single servings of musubi to whole cases walking out of grocery stores. Security guards have been assaulted in many incidents. Who would have thought?

More Spam Please

OmniFoods, a Hong Kong-based food producer and social enterprise, is now producing a plant-based, meat-free version of Spam. That sounds like it is defeating the purpose. On December 21, 2020, McDonald’s China launched a one-day only, new burger featuring Spam and crushed Oreos (you cannot make this stuff up). The mashup features two extra-thick slices of Spam topped with Oreo crumbs and burger sauce.

McDonald’s China reported, “We had a total of 400,000 Oreo luncheon meat burgers, available at about 3,700 branches across China — each branch had a limited supply. The burgers were sold out by noon in some branches. The overall sale was good and there were some fierce discussions on social media sites.”

Online critics shared their experience, “It wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t be considered tasty. The Oreo crumbs were everywhere. Swallow and you would completely forget about its taste.” Another said it was outright unpleasant, “It was sour and sweet and savory. I could taste the flavours of carsickness.”

The burger is just a small bump in a long road that will stretch on. A road paved with a combination of ham, pork, sugar, salt, water, potato starch and a hint of sodium nitrite.

Business, Brand & Writing Strategies. Former CMO at Interbrand, Chief Communications Officer at DDB Worldwide, Principal Consultant at Price Waterhouse.

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