Denise Vella says she fell in love with Greece twice in her life: once when she went backpacking through Europe after university, and years later when she lived on the Danforth.
The third time could be the charm though, now that Lay’s Canada has chosen her tzatziki-flavoured kettle cooked potato chips as one of the four finalists in its second annual Do Us a Flavour contest — which puts her in the running for a $50,000 grand prize.
“I just think it’s a natural. Instead of onion dip, I dip my chips in tzatziki all the time,” says Vella, a Sun Life medical claims analyst.
Now the Cambridge mother of two teens will have to let the chips fall where they may, as her Greek-inspired snack dukes it out in grocery and convenience stores across the country against three other temporary Lay’s chip flavours, including bacon poutine, cinnamon bun and jalapeno mac’n cheese.
Customer recipes and offbeat concoctions are the flavour of the moment in the competitive food industry, where iconic companies are trying anything they can to keep consumers on board with their brand.
For instance at Tim Hortons, the final eight finalists have just been chosen in its second annual Dueling Donuts contest, including two from Toronto, who entered both the red velvet and cherry-flavoured Big Canadian Red and the The Lemmy Tell Ya About Cheesecake, based on a lemon birthday cake.
While Tim Hortons received 76,500 submissions that infused everything from bacon bits to Reese’s Pieces into Canada’s iconic sweet treat, Lay’s Canada got more than one million entries this year – nearly twice as many as in 2013, when Maple Moose chips got the winning nod.
Even the grocery world is part of the trend. Last April, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. awarded a Halifax home cook $250,000 for her winning PC product Mexi Mac ‘n’ Cheese Bites after the third season of its popular Recipe to Riches reality competition show.
But does inviting customers to add weird ingredients like wasabi and cappuccino to chips – as two finalists just did in the U.S. version of the Lay’s contest – or beer and pop rocks to donuts really do much for an established company?
“It engages customers and it gets a lot of buzz going,” says Alan Middleton, marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
“Customers making up products is in keeping with the new age of communication. The power really is now with the crowd,” he says, referring to social media and new phenomenon like crowdfunding.
Observers say all the exposure makes companies like Lay’s and Tim Hortons the real winners of these contests, since these offbeat flavour combinations often don’t have a long shelf life beyond them. Maple Moose Lay’s – the brainchild of a Newfoundland man who married maple syrup with moose meat flavours – was discontinued in stores within a few months due to poor sales. And the Tortoise Torte victorious donut didn’t take off at Tim’s either.
However, Loblaws says it has fared better than the industry average of 10 per cent success with new product launches, saying about 50 per cent of its winning Recipe to Riches consumer-driven items have caught on with customers.
The personal inspirations behind the strange food creations also draw customers to the brand, with people feeling that they can really relate to the competitors, notes Middleton.
For instance, Guillaume Lorrain from Trois-Rivières, Quebec said he came up with his Lay’s chip idea from childhood. Once in awhile when his mom wasn’t home to cook dinner, his dad would take him out for a bacon poutine dinner. Gloria Melanson from London, Ont. was inspired by the cinnamon bun scent wafting from grandma’s oven.
And Calgary’s Randall Litman, who submitted dozens of entries, was thinking of summer barbeques for his chip creation, saying he likes a pile of the crunchy snack beside macaroni on a plate, and figured jalapeno would kick it up a notch.
Executives at Lay’s, one of PepsiCo Canada’s flagship brands, were “blown away” by this year’s response, and narrowing it down to four from a million was no easy task, says director of marketing Susan Irving.
Middleton says it’s also a way to get people to buy their product, since they would likely want to taste it before voting on it.
“The amount of exposure it’s given is relatively short-lived, but I do see the process of co-creation with the consumer happening more continually in future,” he adds.