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The snack that was a low-key scam
The rise and fall of Kudos bars
Hello, Snackers. Once upon a time, in a magical land known as The 1980s, there was a candy bar that wanted you to think it was something else.
We're still on vacation programming this week, so I'm rerunning a post that I originally published in 2021.
Manufacturer photo / Snack Stack illustration
If you want to make an American millennial—especially the older ones, like me—nostalgic, there are a few easy ways to do it. Bring up the video game Oregon Trail, for example, or the Back to the Future movies, or the pre-2008 prospect of financial optimism. Or mention Kudos, the snack that felt like a low-key scam that kids pulled on adults. Here was a granola bar, HEALTH FOOD, that was actually a candy bar, JUNK FOOD.
To eat a Kudos bar was to get away with something.
Look at this packaging, with its minimalist color palette and white background and soulful handwritten logo.
It looks so clean, so wholesome, so different from the maximalist packaging of standard candy bar. Yeah, there's chocolate on the bar, but tale a look at all that granola spilling out! What a gushing well of healthfulness!
As a child of the era, I can tell you that this branding worked. ’80s kids absorbed it and repackaged it in their requests to the parents, even long after those we’d tasted the bars and realized their true nature.
When Kudos bars debuted, in 1986, granola and its cousin, muesli, were just coming off a brief but major cultural moment, going from $280 million in sales in 1982 to $439 million in 1985, and back down to $350 million a year later. As we discussed a while back, this was the tail end of the peak carob and brown rice era in the USA and big corporations were still trying to figure out their way into the hippie-consumer bandwagon.
That 1987 issue of Snack Food was devoted largely to granola in all its forms, starting with a discussion of the health-food origins of muesli (developed in 1895 by Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, two years before he opened a sanatorium called “Vital Force”). When it came to the movement to “candy-ize,” granola, a trend Quaker started in 1983 with Granola Dipps, “the first chocolate-enrobed granola bar,” Snack Food’s reporting took on a noticeably annoyed tone, describing Kudos as “covered (once again) with (surprise!) ‘real chocolate.’ … Yet another variation on the ‘wholesome’ theme.”
For Quaker, Granola Dipps were a new way to think about granola. Kudos bars, on the other hand, were an expansion of the candy lines of M&M/Mars, which was losing market share to Hershey. It's a key difference: the intent of the product, cleverly hidden in the marketing materials, was always to be a new chocolate bar with some granola, not a new granola bar with some chocolate.
I'm certain many parents caught on quickly, as their kids did, but the sales numbers show that the deception was a popular one.
In the first year after launch, Kudos sales “were reportedly 90% above expectations.” The product had hit the sweet spot—exceptionally sweet, with tons of chocolate—of an ostensible health food fad that had been entirely overhauled for the MTV decade. Kudos was the perfect snack to sell to onetime hippies, some of whom were now definitively yuppies, and for them to feed their kids.
Kudos had a good run, but the brand came to an end around 2017, the demise confirmed in a Facebook post. The reasons weren’t entirely clear, but my guess is that Kudos had simply run its generational course. A hippie food had been rebooted to be more like candy, but when the kids who ate it grew up, they realized maybe they didn’t want their “health” food to be overtly candy-like—the low-key scam had run its course, overtaken by the new energy bar sector, which is currently growing quite well. (I’ll leave it to the dieticians to discuss whether or not the current crop of energy bars are actually more healthful.)
There's not much more to say on the subject, honestly, but please enjoy this 1980s Kudos ad, featuring a Randy Newman-evoking song, incredibly of-the-decade outfits (note the “cool” sunglasses at 29 seconds in) and, as a bonus, the last few seconds of an Ishtar preview at the beginning. So rad!
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