First, some crisp trivia:
- What song by Cyndy Lauper appeared on the 1984 promotional party record for KP Crisps?
- How do you win the Wheat Crunchies challenge?
- Who links Wotsits with The Damned?
- In blind tests, which crisp flavour is recognised better than any other?
When it comes to selling crisps I probably know more than a planner would reasonably be expected to know. I’ve worked with some of the most famous brands (from Golden Wonder in the 1980s to Walkers today), I’ve spent years in the category, spoken with hundreds of crisp eaters (as a market researcher) and made scores of ads and promotions. I even won the first UK APG Creative Strategy Awards Grand Prix with a paper on Nik Naks(1).
A Marketer's Delight
And I love them. It’s a fabulous category. We British love crisps so much that the market responds with enthusiasm to anything half interesting a crisp brand does. The volumes make the stakes high, but the returns can payback enormously. Crisp lovers are hugely responsive to new ideas - in product, packaging or promotion. A marketer's delight.
So crisp history is a roller coaster of fortunes. Market leadership has passed from Smiths to Golden Wonder to Walkers. Pringles went from nowhere to number two in a matter of months. And Kettle turned the market upside down with its introduction of ‘posh’ crisps. The product has been exploded (well, extruded) to create snacks for every palate - from the body blow of a pickled onion Monster Munch to the subtlety of 31 times ‘Great Taste Gold Medal’ awarded Pipers, whose naturally harvested sea salt even has EU protected status.
‘Crisps’ has always been one category that’s understood its strengths well. Great crisp brands recognise the joyful and indulgent appeal of the product and they’ve built enduring consumer love by staying true to what they are at heart – a hugely enjoyable, frivolous indulgence. Every aspect of product, packaging and promotion has been energised by innovation and creativity: the category boasts one of the UK’s best loved and longest standing campaigns, Doritos’ Mariachis are still on tour (even if Doritos no longer needs them), and Walker’s ‘Do us a Flavour’ promotion was so successful it became a case study at Harvard. When a category gives you ‘hedgehog flavour’ it can’t be accused of taking itself too seriously and a bag of crisps stands for nothing if not fun.
As a result, sales have grown year on year since they were first sold in little paper bags with a wrap of salt. In Britain today we eat something in the order of six billion packets a year(2). That’s the highest per capita consumption in the world.
But is all that changing? According to Mintel, total sales have been falling for the past two years and are predicted to continue falling for the next five. ‘It’s crunch time for crisps’ the newspapers proclaim (are there no other puns to be had?). So far, crisps have been a truly a national treasure but perhaps we falling out of love? If you talk to anyone about them, (and remember, everyone eats crisps – well 84% of us) it can seem that way.
I still do a lot of face to face consumer research and I’ve noticed that there’s not too much that people get excited about when it comes to crisps anymore. It used to be that the latest crisp advert would always crop up in general chat about favourite advertising, or people would compare their entries for the latest competition, or they’d discuss a new flavour they recommend. That’s not happened for a while.
Maybe the category has started to lose sight of what it’s all about? There are certainly a lot of issues that crisp brands are contending with.
Yes, crisps are loved by millions, but perhaps that’s part of the problem. If you’re eating a bag a day, do they become a commodity? They’re bought on meal deals and offers and thrown automatically, by the mega multi-pack, into shopping trolleys. Private label has always been an issue but add to that the Impact of Aldi and Lidl and there is a huge pressure on margins. At one stage people would tell me that they were happy to put the shop’s own label in their children’s lunch boxes but keep the branded bag for themselves. Now more often the pack is emptied into a bowl and the absence of brand is easier to ignore.
Then there’s health of course. Crisps are seen as villains in terms of salt and fat and we’ve all been told that eating a bag a day is the equivalent of drinking 5 litres of cooking oil a year(3). So, for years now the category has been acting on health issues. Fat and salt levels have been reduced and information campaigns have been aired to tell us about it. And a range of new, healthier products has been introduced – baked not fried, air popped, reduced fat, whole-grain, and with real healthy sounding ingredients and smaller serving sizes.
The category also seems to be obsessed with the premium end of the market. Ever since Kettle introduced us to the notion of mass produced, yet ‘hand-cooked’ crisps, consumers have been shelling out for ever more ‘artisanal’ products. ‘Posh’ crisps as we plebs call them. Tyrells, Burts, Yorkshire, Salty Dog, Mackie's and Pipers now fight for the top end of the market, and Walkers (still dominating with its premium Sensations range) now also offers Market Deli and Mediterranean styles to add a few pence to the price of a bag.
And now I’ve just discovered perhaps the poshest of the posh. Hipchips have worked out how to sell a handful of crisps for £4.50. OK, they’re the most exotic crisps you’ll ever find. They are a rainbow of colours - made from rare heritage potatoes (with names like Red Emmalie and Shetland Black). They’re presented in a beautiful pink stripy box (complete with napkin and tastefully branded wet wipe). And they come with gourmet dips. An asparagus and parmesan, perhaps, or how about the beetroot and lemongrass marmalade? But that’s just for the small size. It’s £11.50 for a ‘large’.
So is this what that the future has in store for crisps? Is the only way ‘up’? Higher quality, healthier and more prestigious? Perhaps it’s not surprising that they’re no fun anymore.
But I’m sure you can be healthy without being worthy, and you can be premium without being boring, and you can have brilliant quality products that are innovative and interesting. If crisps lose their sense of fun they’re in danger of losing all the stuff we love about them so much.
You know what we all want from a bag of deep fried, salty potato slices? That Cyndy Lauper song would give you a clue.
So, if you’re managing a crisp brand and would like to benefit from the know-how and experience we have here at The Minimart, or if you’re just curious to know the answers to our trivia questions, do drop me a line.
- Nik Naks: 'They look "UUGHR!!" but they've got good ads'. Brent Gosling, Account Planning Group - (UK), Gold & Grand Prix, Creative Planning Awards, 1993. WARC Recommended Case Study
Published by: Brent Gosling in Blog