Searching for a fresh way to tell the Kettle story, execs remembered the wacky letters they would get from customers, like, "Build a bag big enough for me to swim in." The fans were flavor crazy, extolling the virtues of salt and pepper or roasted red pepper. Kettle resolved to find a way to tap into that energy.
At events across the Pacific Northwest (Kettle's based in Salem, Oregon), reps asked people to name "one flavor you'd like us to make." They collected 16,000 ballots that suggested everything from chocolate chip to wasabi. "We had to be able to make the flavor all-natural, the chips had to taste good, and we had to think it would sell," says Carolyn Richards, Kettle's chief flavor architect. Sorry, bubble-gum potato-chip dreamers.
The first People's Choice campaign let fans decide which chip to make next, from a list of five. Visitors to Kettle's Web site could vote based only on the flavor description; there was no way to taste the chips. (And in the case of strawberry cream, whew!) Still, 10,000 people voted, which was "about 9,900 more people than we asked before," says Michelle Peterman, VP of marketing.
Spicy Thai and Cheddar Beer were introduced at the Fancy Food Show as Kettle's first People's Choice chips. The buzz has led more customers to ask stores to carry the chips. U.S. sales rose 28.1% in 2005, to $31.3 million, while the potato-chip market as a whole grew only 1.2%, according to Packaged Facts.
Year two of the People's Choice let customers buy $10 "party packs" containing bags of each of the five flavor contenders. After Buffalo Bleu Cheese and Tuscan Three Cheese won, Kettle tweaked each flavor based on comments posted to its Web site by tasters before launching them in the fall.
KettleNeighborhood.com, a community site for potato-chip lovers, launched on the heels of the third People's Choice (Island Jerk won). "We wanted something available 365 days a year," says Tim Fallon, president, North America. Kettle will use the site for flavor development. Fans will use it for all-day chip chat.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.