Forget macaroni: Skinner pushes profile as Omaha baker

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Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2013 12:00 am

By most measures, the James Skinner Baking Co.'s launch of its own J. Skinner brand of pastries three years ago has been a big success.

The company is distributing its Danish pastries, muffins, rolls and croissants in 50 states, has opened a second plant, and has seen total revenue double, with forecasts for it to double again by 2015.

There is just one thing bothering company executives.

“Our hometown doesn't know who we are,” CEO Audie Keaton said.

Unlike other homegrown brands like Rotella's bread, Omaha Steaks and Greater Omaha Pack's beef, Keaton said, people in Omaha are largely unaware that Skinner's products are made here, in a sweet-smelling bakery near 42nd and F Streets.

If they know the Skinner name, they still associate it with Skinner Macaroni, the manufacturer of pasta and other food products that was founded in 1911 in Omaha but was sold in 1979 to Hershey Foods Corp. The Skinner Macaroni name is still visible on the Old Market building that today is home to the Skinner Macaroni Lofts apartments.

Today, the descendants of Skinner Macaroni co-founder Lloyd M. Skinner are directly involved in the James Skinner Baking Co., started in 1983. Jim Skinner, grandson of Lloyd Skinner, is chairman of the board, and three of his children are involved in the business, even as the youngest is finishing up her degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

They want locals to know who they are, understand their economic impact and think of Omaha when they pick up a Danish at the supermarket.

Hoping to raise its local profile, the company says it is taking several steps to boost its brand awareness in Nebraska. It's advertising at Husker football, basketball and volleyball games throughout the 2013-2014 school year, including stadium and radio advertising, and giving away free samples at games.

And it is making plans to launch a charitable foundation under the Skinner name in 2015. While the company currently gives to a variety of causes, it hopes to expand its reputation as a corporate citizen in both Omaha and in Paris, Texas, where it reopened a former Sara Lee bakery this year and will soon add a second production line.

Talking about branding is a relatively new conversation for Skinner, and something the firm has learned about through trial and error. For its first 26 years in business, the firm made private-label products and co-packed products for other brand-name baked goods labels.

Jim Skinner, who started the business with his father, Lloyd E. Skinner, said he and other executives decided Skinner should be its own brand. Working only under contract for other firms, Jim Skinner said, “You're really not in control of your own destiny. It got very redundant, and there isn't much creativity in it.”

It was time, as Keaton said, “to step outside that, create a brand and develop relationships with the end consumers.”

But the first attempt to roll out a Skinner-branded product was a failure. Almost nothing about the marketing was right, executives said.

In 2009 Skinner created a frozen rolled pastry product, a dulce de leche roulade, marketed for special occasions. The box used neutral colors and a stuffy silhouette image of people at a party. And it had the full James Skinner Baking Co. name on it.

“It sounds corporate — it sounds like something in a phone book,” said David Skinner, Jim Skinner's son and company marketing manager.

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The second time around was different. Skinner hired a Philadelphia marketing agency with experience in baked goods.

Elyse Norton, formerly of that firm and now working directly for Skinner as vice president of marketing, said touring supermarkets and conducting other market research helped her team decide how to brand Skinner products. They decided to play up the baking methods with the “modern artisan baking” tagline, use bright colors and wrap the containers in a sleeve to highlight glossy photographs and distinguish the product among the “sea of clamshells” found in many supermarket bakery sections.

They discussed not using the Skinner name, because of its association with other products, but decided, “No, that's the basis of this company,” Norton said. Calling it “J. Skinner,” printed in a handwritten script, was deliberate too — not too formal, but not impersonal, either.

“It separates the company and it associates a person with it, as opposed to a corporation,” Norton said.

The product was a hit, and today the branded pastries make up 70 percent of Skinner revenue, with the rest still coming from co-packing work.

Developing a new brand also meant a new corporate focus. Keaton was promoted to CEO from chief operating officer, and Shawn Bushouse was hired from Kellogg's as chief financial officer, among other changes.

Though the firm chose Texas for its bakery expansion after a dispute over sewer rates here delayed local expansion, Skinner is now expanding its corporate headquarters, at 4651 F St., with plans to expand the corporate staff to 80 from 60.

The Paris, Texas, plant employs 138 and will grow to 200, for a company total of 650, including the approximately 400 who work at Skinner's G Street bakery in Omaha. Keaton said his goal is to employ “1,000 families,” phrased that way because he sees Skinner as an “old-fashioned employer” that pays a living wage and supports local families.

But the company said its growth has gone little noticed in Omaha.

Branding expert Dave Nelson of Omaha's Secret Penguin said it might take time.

Skinner was associated with the macaroni product for decades — Nelson said he still makes that association. “I recognize their name — the Skinner Macaroni,” he said. “A lot of time, branding is a long-term process.”

Looking at the Skinner products, he said the packing appears to be on target. “It looks high-end, but still an approachable brand.”

There are further steps the company could take, he said. He pointed out that the Skinner website makes little mention of its company heritage or Omaha location. And he suggested a social media campaign directed at starting a conversation with Omaha customers.

Julia Doria, chief marketing officer for Bailey Lauerman, also suggested social media, perhaps a Facebook advertising campaign aimed at Omahans who meet Skinner's target demographic. National success can be a challenge for local brands, she said. “But on the other hand, most consumers feel really good about purchasing locally sourced goods.”

Omaha, its consumers and its work force have been major contributors to the company's success, and Skinner hopes it won't be long before the name is seen as more than a faded sign on an old building.

“We want the brand to be more than just a logo,” David Skinner said. “We wanted to make sure the legacy is carried on.”

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