How Amplify Snack Brands stays current in a competitive category

by Monica Watrous
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Paqui California  Reaper Madness one chip challenge
Amplify's Paqui brand issued the One Chip Challenge with its launch of the Carolina Reaper Madness Chip.
 

CHICAGO — Recently, Amplify Snack Brands caused a big stir with a single tortilla chip. The Austin, Texas-based company’s Paqui brand issued the One Chip Challenge with its launch of the Carolina Reaper Madness Chip, made with the world’s spiciest known pepper and packaged individually in a coffin-shaped box. Consumers were dared to eat the chip and share the experience on social media.

“We sold out of those chips in less than 30 minutes on our web site, and in stores they were gone within days,” said Pamela Finer, director of marketing at Amplify Snack Brands. “It kind of took on a life of its own, due in part because no one has ever seen anyone do anything like it, selling one chip in a coffin, for $5 nonetheless, and challenging people to eat it. We kind of created this phenomenon that propelled the brand. We had 1 billion earned impressions out of it.”

It’s an example of how Amplify Snack Brands, which also owns SkinnyPop popcorn, Oatmega protein bars and Tyrrells kettle-cooked potato chips, is tapping into consumer trends through innovation and marketing. Earlier this year, the company released the results of a national study it conducted with the Center for Generational Kinetics on millennial snacking behaviors.

Skinnypop popcorn cakes
SkinnyPop Popcorn Cakes are debuting in three flavors: maple brown sugar, sea salt and white cheddar.
 

“Spice is a real thing for people; there are these pepper heads that are all about spice and heat,” Ms. Finer said. “So we took these insights from consumers and thought of the idea collectively in a room together of, ‘What if we offered the hottest chip ever, and we only offered one?’

“You kind of tap into that human behavior of wanting to challenge someone to do something that is hard or scary or, in this case, spicy.”

At the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 23-25 in Chicago, Amplify Snack Brands is featuring a spate of innovation across its stable of brands, including two new Paqui chip varieties  — Wild Wild Ranch and Spicy Queso — and a new range of Oatmega cookies made with grass-fed whey protein. New products under the SkinnyPop banner include SkinnyPop Microwave Popcorn, packaged in a chemical-free lined pop-up box, in sea salt and butter varieties, and SkinnyPop Popcorn Cakes and Popcorn Mini Cakes. The Popcorn Cakes are available in sea salt, maple brown sugar and white cheddar flavors. The Mini Cakes are available in sea salt, cinnamon and sugar, and sharp cheddar varieties. The brand also is adding two flavors to its ready-to-eat line: Aged White Cheddar and Pepper Jack.

Paqui Wild Wild Ranch chips
Amplify is featuring new Wild Wild Ranch Paqui chips at Sweets & Snacks.
 

Additionally, the company’s recently acquired Tyrrells brand, popular in the United Kingdom, is making its U.S. debut.

“The brand has a distinct witty English personality, which makes it quite different, and the actual product is different than anything we have here in the states,” Ms. Finer said. “The skin is left on the potatoes, so the visual of the chip looks more homemade and more premium. We actually have unique processes in the manufacturing facility that spin off the excess oil, so it delivers a really unique crunch.

“The flavors that we’re leveraging here in the states are unique twists on mainstream flavors. We have Mature Cheddar and Chive, and Cider Vinegar and Sea Salt. Flavors that have wide appeal but also have something unique about them.”

Tyrrels Mature Cheddar & Chive chips
Tyrrells offers such chip flavors as Mature Cheddar & Chive, and Sea Salt & Cider Vinegar.
 

In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Finer discussed the company’s strategy for standing out in the crowded snack market.

What drove the decision to expand SkinnyPop into these other categories? Particularly microwave popcorn, which has been struggling in recent years?

Ms. Finer: There was no one really doing much in the category, and we had this opportunity to take a brand that has the No. 1 loyalty in ready-to-eat popcorn and take a really innovative mechanism to pop the popcorn in this pop-up box. We are bringing something new and different, where consumers no longer have to worry about chemicals in the bag and long ingredient labels. We’re bringing this simple, innovative, clean way of eating to microwave popcorn.

Similar holds true on the rice cake category — also another sleepy category that hasn’t had a lot of innovation. We have a pretty unique way to make these cakes with popcorn. We use the same popcorn we use in ready-to-eat to make popcorn cakes. They deliver a different level of crunch and taste, again bringing simple ingredients, short ingredient labels and the SkinnyPop brand to a category that has long been neglected.

Skinnypop microwaveable popcorn
Amplify recently launched SkinnyPop Microwave Popcorn, packaged in a chemical-free lined pop-up box.
 

What were some of the key learnings from the company’s research on millennials, and how is the company using these insights in product development?

Ms. Finer: We really focused on millennials because they will have the most buying power over the next several years and they are critical to this better-for-you snacking movement. These millennial consumers don’t believe they need to sacrifice taste for nutrition... They think that a better-for-you snack should taste as good as a regular snack.

We also wanted to understand how these consumers actually define better-for-you. One of the things we learned was having a simple and transparent ingredient statement … being able to understand the ingredients in the products they are eating is really important.

We learned a lot from the study, and it helped validate some of the things we already knew about our consumers, but it also helped inform our strategy moving forward. Consumers are absolutely willing to pay a premium for better-for-you snacks, and it’s not just consumers that make more than $75,000 a year. Those that make less than $75,000 a year are just as likely to spend more for better-for-you snacks.

Oatmega cookies with grass-fed whey protein
At Sweets & Snacks, Amplify is showcasing its new Oatmega cookies made with grass-fed whey protein.
 

What led to the company’s decision to acquire Oatmega last year, and what does that brand add to the portfolio?

Ms. Finer: It was a relatively young brand in terms of brand development, but it had already shown great traction in the marketplace. The bar tastes better than any other protein bar on the market today.

You get the functional benefit of high protein, with 14 grams of protein, and low sugar, only 5 grams of sugar, but without artificial sweeteners that can wreak havoc on your digestive system. You get this great macronutrient profile and functional benefit, and the product tastes great. When consumers think about protein bars, there is a perception that they taste chalky or taste like protein powder.

To my knowledge, I believe we are the only ones that use grass-fed whey protein. It is a super-premium source of protein. The only place we can get this grass-fed whey is in New Zealand. We believe in the benefits of grass-fed whey over traditional whey, and you can see that come to life in other categories outside of snacking. I see it all the time in milk and yogurt.

Skinnypop mini popcorn cakes
New SkinnyPop Popcorn Mini Cakes are available in sea salt, sharp cheddar, and cinnamon and sugar varieties.
  

How will Amplify Snack Brands continue to evolve its brands to remain relevant in the competitive snack market?

Ms. Finer: We are leveraging the insights from our recent research studies to inform our innovation pipeline going forward and ensuring that we’re meeting the needs of consumers in terms of snacking.

Each brand is focused on innovating in its core competency. For example, SkinnyPop is an incredible brand that has a ton of potential, and we’ve already shown it can extend across categories, but what makes our innovation unique is it’s always made with 100% popcorn, and that is very special to the SkinnyPop brand.

Oatmega will always be made with grass-fed protein, and Paqui only uses real ingredients and is all about that flavor impact. We spend a lot of time with consumers and retailers to ensure we are knowledgeable and educated and one step ahead.

Paqui California Reaper Madness one-chip challenge
Amplify plans to bring back the Paqui One Chip Challenge.
 

How did the Paqui One Chip Challenge come about?

Ms. Finer: The Paqui brand is a really interesting one. The flavors range between Wild Wild Ranch and Cool Salsa Verde, which don’t have a lot of heat, up to Ghost Pepper, which is an everyday flavor for us that is extremely hot. The flavors all taste great, but there are some people who can’t handle spice, and then there is this cult-like following for extreme spice, so our Ghost Pepper does extremely well.

We are going to be bringing back the One Chip Challenge with some new news attached to it. You’d be surprised, but we get hundreds of emails every month still from consumers asking where they can get the One Chip Challenge.

Have you taken the One Chip Challenge?

Ms. Finer: I have. We actually had a company off-site meeting before we launched it. Part of the company event was taking this One Chip Challenge. We had everybody in the company form a line, everyone ate a chip … took a shot of milk, a shot of Pepto-Bismol, and they got a T-shirt that said something like, “Fear the reaper.”

I’ve only done it once. It was painful, but I felt quite proud. 
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