If you were to procure a time machine and go back to 2009, you would be able to casually walk into any major grocery store in the UK and pick up a bag of Cajun Squirrel flavored chips. That's right, squirrel.
This was all a part of Lay's (known as Walkers internationally) first-ever "Do Us A Flavor" competition, in which the company enlisted the people of the internet to crowdsource a crazy new potato chip flavor for a £50,000 prize.
Five years later Lay's has brought the contest to the U.S. in an extremely successful social media campaign asking consumers to submit and share their own flavor combinations on Facebook. More than 3.8 million submissions later, Lay's has finally produced its top three user-generated finalists: Chicken & Waffles, Sriracha, and Cheesy Garlic Bread. The winner, as determined by votes and tweets like #SaveSriracha, will receive $1 million or 1 percent of net sales, whatever's more.
But it took a lot to whittle the 3.8 million submissions down. According to Frito-Lay spokeswoman Ann Mukherjee, a highly trained group of brand representatives, foodies, and food scientists chose 10 top flavors and then capture them on a chip.
"We have unbelievable culinary department," Mukherjee told BI. "We have executive chefs who work on our flavors 365 days a year. What we basically do is they make the dish first, they actually make the food first. Then we have food scientists who translate the flavors for our seasoning department. And so when we actually make the chip final evaluation, we test it against the real food. So if those food flavors don't come through, it gets rejected."
Then it came down to celebrity chef and "Iron Chef: America" regular Michael Symon and Eva Longoria to help nail down the top three.
"I actually got the chips during Sandy," said Symon, who told BI he had escaped his powerless Soho apartment after calling every chef he knew with a hotel restaurant to see if they had rooms.
"So there was no power in our apartment for ten days, we were staying in a hotel room, and Liz my wife and I were eating the chips," he continued. "We couldn't get water next door but we had lots of chips. It was actually a very comforting moment in the midst of chaos."
He tried the flavors blind to see if he could identify what the flavors actually were and narrowed his choices based on creativity, taste, and the ability to connect with consumers.
"The thing that I love about America creating the flavor is that they got to the flavor from something that stimulated a story or a childhood memory or something," Symon said. "My son is a hot sauce freak, so everything, since he was 8 years old, he's put sriracha on noodles and sandwiches and eggs and all that stuff."
While there were obviously multiple entries for the same flavor — in fact, most entries from California used jalapeno, North Carolina had beef, Ohio liked cheddar, and 80 percent of Maine entries had lobster as an ingredient — Mukherjee said that the winner was based on the explanation for the inspiration behind the flavor.
What's truly exceptional about the "Do Us A Flavor" campaign is that it perfectly utilizes all forms of social media — Lay's even made a tool called the "Chef Michael Symon Flavorizer" that (with permission) went into users Facebook timelines and suggest flavors based on different types of restaurants they'd recently posted about — and then gets consumers to actually go to brick and mortar locations to buy and try the products.
"It's another excuse to get people to talk about themselves," Mukherjee said. "At the end of the day, we all want to connect. We want to find a way to connect with each other. That's all there is. If you can crack that code in social media, then the brand benefits."
A winner will be announced on May 4.
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