Powered by the People

By Deborah Cassell

Kettle Foods’ annual potato chip flavor competition and environmentally responsible agenda have made it the People’s Choice, in more ways than one.
In this election year, a record number of voters turned out for a fierce battle between controversial candidates that made more than one constituent hot under the collar.
No, we’re not talking about the ongoing presidential race. Rather, the results of Kettle Foods’ 4th annual People’s Choice campaign. Past winners have included Spicy Thai, Cheddar Beer, Tuscan Three Cheese, Buffalo Bleu and Island Jerk. The 2008 theme — Fire and Spice — created some serious heat as five flavors competed for total chip dominance.
Finally, the ballots are in, the votes have been tallied, and the people have spoken. This year’s champion: Death Valley Chipotle, “a smoky blend of red chili, cayenne, chipotle and habanero, with subtle accents of herbs” that left voters saying, “I have sought something all my life. Now I have found it.”
After purchasing Party Packs containing samples of each variety via www.KettleFoods.com, more than 13,000 people cast their votes online for “the ultimate pepper paradise,” which beat out four other potent contenders — Wicked Hot Sauce, Mango Chili, Jalapeño Salsa Fresca and Orange Ginger Wasabi — to win a spot on supermarket shelves come April.
According to Tim Fallon, company president and general manager, North America, the People’s Choice campaign gets bigger and better each year, and competitors are starting to flatter Kettle Foods by copying its method of marketing.
But few can compete with the innovative varieties this Salem, Ore.-based company produces. Although lightly salted chips makes up half the business, Fallon notes, flavors are what it’s known for and passionate about ... almost as passionate as the public is about its Kettle Brand chips.
Potato Heads
By the afternoon of January 14, immediately following the official online announcement of the 2008 People’s Choice winner, consumers already were blogging about the results online. Who knew potato chips could garner such a following?
Kettle Foods did. The company learned long ago that its product was capable of generating the kind of constituency that candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton only dream about — loyalty that rises above advertising and marketing schemes to literally empower the people.
“Kettle is a beloved product here in Oregon,” notes Michelle Peterman, vice president of marketing.
Indeed, when Kettle Brand first started selling in natural food stores throughout the Pacific Northwest 25 years ago, “they were just an immediate hit,” says Jim Green, Kettle Foods ambassador.
But the brand’s popularity extends beyond its home state. In fact, a 2006 survey by consumer research firm The Hartman Group, Inc. named Kettle Brand the third most recognized natural and organic foods brand on the market, just below Silk and Ben & Jerry’s. Just what accounts for this name recognition?
“We connect with the consumer,” Fallon says.
Indeed, Kettle Foods receives countless letters from fans young, old and even primate. (See My 15 Minutes, page 80.) The flavors to receive the most fan mail include Sea Salt & Vinegar, New York Cheddar With Herbs, and Fresh Ground Salt & Pepper, the last of which gets more love than any other chip in the brand’s diverse portfolio.
Kettle Brand’s rise to fame has been a largely grassroots effort, as the company does not advertise its products, relying mostly on word-of-mouth and guerrilla marketing, according to Fallon. These methods have proven pretty successful for Kettle Foods.
Case in point: The People’s Choice campaign was born out of a tour of summer festivals back in 2004 during which the snack manufacturer set up tents and asked attendees to make recommendations for what potato chip flavor Kettle Brand should come out with next. According to Peterman, people actually waited in line to submit their ballots. The initiative resulted in an inch-thick Excel database of 16,000 suggestions, including such concoctions as Artichoke & Parmesan, Caramel Butter, Lemon & Capers, Lasagna, Lychee and Licorice.
Using the list as a guide — with an eye on quick-service restaurant (QSR) trends — the company held its first-ever People’s Choice campaign in 2005. The winner, Spicy Thai “hit the stratosphere,” Peterman describes, with voters exclaiming over Kettle Foods’ creation of “fusion in a chip.”
Since that time, Kettle Foods has created numerous new flavors for its growing campaign. In fact, it derived its inspiration for this year’s winning variety from what’s happening on QSR menus.
“That’s where we saw chipotle,” Peterman notes. However, the overall theme for the recent competition came from the idea that “heat has evolved beyond jalapeño,” she adds.
In the future, Kettle Foods might sell its People’s Choice Party Packs in stores, in addition to online. For now, the snack producer’s campaign and sales numbers are going strong.
In fact, “growth of the brand on the West Coast has been short of spectacular,” Fallon says. The company’s success in the Midwest and East is sure to follow, given its new plant in Beloit, Wis., where innovation comes in forms beyond mere flavor.
Targeting a Niche Audience
Kettle Foods is driven by its dedication to creating premium-quality, uniquely seasoned potato chips made from all-natural ingredients — a theme set in motion by founder and flavor developer Cameron Healy, who “had a great palate,” as Peterman points out. The company’s products have been trans fat-free since the beginning. It also was the first of its kind to offer an organic line.
In addition, Kettle Foods is motivated by an invested interest in sustainability. For example, the manufacturer turns cooking oil into biodiesel, which it uses to run three Volkswagen Beetles at its headquarters in Salem. And its new facility in Beloit exemplifies environmental responsibility in the manufacturing sector.
Although sustainability concerns have only recently swept the nation, Kettle Foods was green before green was fashionable, thanks largely to Healy, who has “always been able to see over the horizon,” Green notes, explaining that even in the early ‘80s, Healy knew that people were going to resonate with a natural lifestyle.
Today, the niche shopper Kettle Foods once targeted has become a mainstream consumer. But even though its audience has changed, “we’ve stayed the same,” Peterman says.
Respect for Mother Earth aside, when it comes down to it, “We make a great chip,” Fallon says.
Green agrees: “We think after 26 years, we might be on the right track”
Kettle Foods’ growing success certainly solidifies Peterman’s notion that “this is a brand whose day has come.”
The theme for the 2009 People’s Choice campaign remains to be seen, but as she points out, ideas for new chips are “ever-present.” And if history has taught us anything, it promises to be an even stronger race than the last. Consumers are likely to vote early and often.
After all, at Kettle Foods, every year is an election year. SF&WB
It’s All in the Bag
Death Valley Chipotle, Kettle Foods’ 2008 People’s Choice winner, will hit stores nationwide starting in April. Consumers can look forward to bringing home “the ultimate pepper paradise.” They also are sure to enjoy the packaging. Designed by San Francisco-based Michael Osborne Design, under the direction of senior marketing project coordinator Jennifer Hauge, the bright orange-and-yellow bag will be covered in graffiti-like exclamatory comments from voters about the new chip, including the following:
“My idea of kickin’ it up a notch!”
“Best dang chip to cross these lips in years!”
“Just can’t stop eating them!”
“Sends my mouth on a Southwest vacation!”
“They’re hotter than my husband!”
The executives at Kettle Foods believe in the power of packaging.
As vice president of marketing Michelle Peterman says, “The bag is the number one selling tool” and, thus, “a big part of the launch.”
More People Pleasers
As if the 2008 People’s Choice winner weren’t enough, Kettle Foods recently introduced the following new products:
• 100-calorie packs of its Kettle Brand Bakes Potato Chips, Lightly Salted. A single bag of the product contains 65% less fat than regular potato chips, 2.5 g. of fat, 2 g. of fiber, and 0 g. of both cholesterol and trans fat. According to Michelle Peterman, vice president of marketing, there are about 20 chips in a single serving. As the bag reads, “The rice cakes are jealous.”
• Kettle Brand Backyard Barbecue Chips, “where the livin’ is EASY.” Proceeds benefit the National Wildlife Federation (www.NWF.org), which “strives to certify 150,000 backyard wildlife habitats across America,” according to the back of the bag. Kettle Foods has certified its own “backyards” in both Salem, Ore., and Beloit, Wis. The company will donate an extra dollar to the NWF every time a consumer “chips in” by certifying their own backyard by Aug. 31 of this year.
• Kettle Brand Sour Cream Onion & Chive Chips, “sour cream with a green agenda.” This new flavor isn’t the only thing that’s “green” about Kettle Foods, whose new Beloit plant is as environmental as it gets. (See “Green Card,” page 24.)