When Oreos came to China in 1996, consumers were nonplussed. The chocolate sandwich cookies, which Americans seemed to want filled with ever-larger gobs of icing, were far too sweet for the Chinese palate. By 2005, Kraft Foods was losing money on every Oreo sold (paywall).
The company regrouped, introducing a lighter Oreo, a rectangular Oreo, and chocolate-covered wafer sticks. At the Kraft Foods biscuit research lab in Suzhou, food scientists experimented with dozens of other varieties, among them an Oreo that replaced the traditional filling with a glob of gum. (That version never made it to shelves). Sales in the Chinese market, languishing at $20 million in 2005, grew to more than $400 million by 2012.
Kraft spun off Oreo and other snacks brands into a new company, Mondelez International, in 2012, and itself merged with Heinz in 2015. Now, Kraft Heinz is taking the lessons learned from 1990s Oreos to Jif Jaf, a chocolate-sandwich cookie the company is releasing in China (paywall). Filling flavors include a traditional chocolate, but also matcha tea, chili, and cheese.
A Kraft Heinz executive brushed off the Oreo comparison to AdAge, saying: ”We are not here to compete with a single brand in particular—there are many sandwich cookies in the market today.”
The company is smart to focus on China, where the market for biscuits and cookies hit $10.2 billion in 2016, according to Mintel (whose March 2017 report on the Chinese biscuit segment devotes an entire section to the “Room for more cheese-flavoured biscuits.”)
Unlike Oreo, each Jif Jaf character has its own personality, part of a brand-development effort led by creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR). The matcha character is calm and zen-like, chili is a thrill-seeker, and cheese is a ladies’ man. JKR strategy director Katie Ewer told AdAge: ”He’s someone as irresistible as cheese is.”