After so many years of being considered “crackers”…..Wheat Thins are now re-branding themselves as “snacks” for some big fancy marketing reason.

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Like ready-made pie crusts, crackers are marketed not just on their merits but also on what consumers put on them, so packages often show crackers topped with artfully arranged cheese, diced vegetables and dip. Typical of the approach was when Andy Griffith, a pitchman for Ritz crackers in television commercials in the 1970s, declared, “Everything tastes better when it sits on a Ritz.” But now Wheat Thins, from the Nabisco division of Kraft Foods, is recasting itself not as a platform for cheddar or onion dip, but rather a stand-alone snack.

“When consumers talk about snacks, they look at Wheat Thins in the same basket as other snacks like pretzels, potato chips and popcorn,” said Jim Low, marketing director for the wheat cracker division at Kraft. “Wheat Thins is one of the least topped crackers in the cracker category — so we realized we needed to act more like a snack.”

The most avid consumers of salty snacks are young adults 18 to 24, who have them 5.3 times a week, compared with an overall adult average of 4.8 times, according to Mintel, the market research firm. Marketing for the brand over the last year has sought younger consumers by focusing on social networking, while highlighting an attribute often used to sell chips: crunchiness.

In a television campaign introduced in June 2010, consumers who have mentioned Wheat Thins on either Twitter or Facebook are paid a surprise visit by a film crew traveling in a van that says, “The Crunch Is Calling.” The first ad, by the Escape Pod of Chicago, featured Tabitha Hancock, who lives in Los Angeles and had written on her Facebook page that because she was “outta wheat thins,” her “life is officially over!” Ms. Hancock got a knock on her front door by the crew, led by the actor Brian Palatucci, who interviewed her while a forklift lowered a pallet of Wheat Thins in her driveway.

Other spots surprise consumers who had posted about using Wheat Thins as picks to play air guitar or wondering if noise-canceling headphones can effectively block the sound of Wheat Thins being chewed. Norm Bilow, managing director of the Escape Pod, said that initially the agency was just researching Twitter mentions of Wheat Thins for background. “They were fun comments, and someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could go to all of their houses?’ ” Mr. Bilow said. “And that sort of became the idea.”

The ads, called Twitterventions, have garnered about a million views on YouTube, but some viewers have doubted their authenticity. In October, Derek Tzeo, who lives in Portland, Ore., wrote in a Twitter message that the commercials were “uber fake.” In a new commercial scheduled to premiere Wednesday, during the People’s Choice Awards on CBS, the Wheat Thins film crew surprises Mr. Tzeo on a street with a pallet of Wheat Thins.

Through an integration deal with the People’s Choice Awards, Wheat Thins is sponsoring the Viral Video Star category, and in a taped segment during the live broadcast, the Wheat Thins crew surprises the winner at home with the award. Wheat Thins spent $14.2 million on advertising in 2008 and $14.3 million in 2009, and in the first three quarters of 2010 surpassed both years, at $16.2 million, according to Kantar Media. The brand declined to reveal total ad spending for 2010, but did confirm that its advertising budget called for spending at the same levels in 2011.

This is not the first time snacking has been emphasized by Wheat Thins. Television commercials in the 1980s featured a jingle with the lyrics, “Wheat Thins — something like a cracker, but more like a snack,” while Sandy Duncan, who pitched the product in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, tended to eat them straight from the box and declare they were “snackable.”

But in those earlier efforts, Mr. Low, of Kraft, suggested, Wheat Thins protested too much by evoking crackers, something marketing for a true snack would have no cause to do. Today the word “crackers” is verboten, and the brand is replacing the term “snack crackers” on the front of packages with “snacks,” a change that will be completed across the line in 2011.

If Wheat Thins are becoming more like snacks, the reverse may be equally true. Mintel reports that “among the hottest trends in new salty snack products,” are varieties that are baked, not fried, and that contain whole grains — both attributes of Wheat Thins since they were introduced in 1947.

These days, in serving suggestion photos, Wheat Thins always go topless, and accompaniments like cheese or grapes are not even shown nearby. (For cracker traditionalists, and contrary to the general direction of the brand, in 2009 it introduced Wheat Thins Flatbread crackers, which are long and rectangular and whose packages show cheeses and vegetables on them.)

To raise its visibility with the young and the snack-prone, the brand gave away more than five million samples in 2010 at such youth-oriented events as college football and basketball games, and at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which is held annually in Tennessee.

Growth, much like Wheat Thins themselves, had been flat over the last few years, but the brand has had month-over-month increases in both revenue and market share for each of the last six months, according to Symphony/IRI Group, whose data does not include Wal-Mart. Wheat Thins total revenue for the 52 weeks that ended Nov. 28 reached $346.6 million, according to Symphony/IRI.

The brand recently introduced Wheat Thins Crunch Stix, which are shaped like pretzel sticks and sold in a beveled box that is wider at the top than bottom, to accommodate a reaching hand. But Wheat Thins Stix raise an existential question: If they are not thin, are they really Wheat Thins? “I don’t think people are doctrinaire about the literalness of what the name means,” Mr. Low of Kraft said. “It’s a brand called Wheat Thins that stands for great snacking.”


So you don’t wanna be called crackers anymore, huh Wheat Thins? Well, we don’t care what you consider yourselves to to be. Once a cracker, always a cracker!

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