One thousand five hundred and counting. That’s how many flavors Marie Wright, chief global flavorist at Archer Daniels Midland Co., has developed for her highly secretive clients: the biggest food brands in the world.
She sent me a care package showcasing some of her team’s work, which includes a Coca-Cola chicken jerky. When is the last time I even drank a real Coke? I wonder. A decade?
I take my first bite, and the sticky sweet flavor of this jerky is exactly like a sip from a freshly cracked-open can of Coke. Then the Coke flavor gives way to smoke and salt. It’s okay, I think, minutes before I realize that I’ve finished the whole bag.
Companies like PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz, and Anheuser-Busch are embracing wild new flavors that seem novel and extreme. But upon closer inspection, they’re actually just remixing flavors we already know and love. These brand mashups have been on-trend for some time, but COVID-19 has cemented the practice. Lockdown offered food and beverage companies an unparalleled captive audience of people starved as much for comfort as they are novelty.
Call it the new nostalgia. The flavors themselves aren’t fresh, but they are placed into surprising contexts to offer a combination of comfort and adventure. Sometimes those flavors are strangely intriguing, like Pepsi Apple Pie cola, and sometimes they are nothing short of a gag-worthy food troll, like Pumpkin Spice Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. During the pandemic, Wright says companies are coming to her seeking surprising flavor combinations: “We’ve notably seen some of our clients who generally stay a little more conservative are [now] happy to be a little more adventurous [if] not wildly outside of the box.”
The companies I spoke to agreed. “Everybody is just looking to stay interested and make tomorrow a little different than yesterday. You’re in the same location, wearing the same thing,” says Todd Kaplan, VP of the Pepsi brand. “Because everyone’s world has gotten a lot smaller, from travel and restaurants being closed, things you’d normally do to keep your ongoing ritual more interesting, you have to bring more of that into the home.”
Food companies say that this new nostalgia isn’t going anywhere soon. But will we still be craving comfort when the world reopens?
The new nostalgia
In front of me sit four different Pepsis: Pepsi “Hot” Chocolate; Pepsi Peeps (pink); Pepsi Peeps (yellow); and an ominous-looking medicine bottle with a hand-printed label that reads “Pepsi Apple Pie Promo.”
I crack the hot chocolate flavor. It smells like winter. As I take a sip, I swear that this Pepsi is silkier than the original, with a thick chocolate that covers my tongue. Then the bubbles start to pop and there it is, the Pepsi aftertaste I know.
Pepsi Peeps? The cute, 7.5-ounce cans beckon me with their perfect pink and yellow hues. They smell like Pepsi. They taste like sugar. Then sugary Pepsi. Then again, maybe it’s my mind playing tricks or filling in the gaps? (I cannot tell the difference between pink and yellow, which is also just like real Peeps.)
As for Pepsi Apple Pie, this was the offering I was most skeptical about, and yet, it’s absolutely the most impressive feat of flavor engineering in the group. The flavor starts with apple, transitions to cinnamon, and circles into Pepsi. Then the flavor reverses, back to cinnamon and then to apple! And somehow, that’s not gross.
All four of these Pepsi flavors are what the industry dubs LTOs, or “limited-time offerings,” which are short-term products that may last only a few months on store shelves, or only a single campaign on social media. It’s food as marketing.
“It’s almost like a sneaker drop sneaker,” says Kaplan of these Pepsi LTOs. Kaplan is, as a side note, a self-ascribed “total sneakerhead” himself.
LTOs are important to the industry, and have been particularly important during COVID-19, because they are essentially more notable spin-offs from giant, always-successful brands. They are bolder, sillier, and designed to get your attention and light up social media. But they aren’t random by any means.
As Kaplan explains, Pepsi Apple Pie was anchored in contemporary culture when it launched as a Twitter promotion around Thanksgiving in 2020. People were baking during the pandemic while watching shows like The Great British Bake-Off and Nailed It!
“There’s that cultural truth,” Kaplan says. Baking plus Pepsi made sense. Since apple pie is America’s dessert—and Kaplan claims people already drink Pepsi with apple pie (Do they really? Earnest question.)—mashing up the two made sense. Despite never hitting actual store shelves, Pepsi Apple Pie garnered more than 1,000 stories in the media, generating billions of impressions, according to the company.
What about unit sales? Pepsi didn’t sell it; Apple Pie cola was sent to fans as part of a hashtag challenge. But while Pepsi Apple Pie was a marketing play, plenty of these nostalgic releases are aimed at generating sales, too. The industry is embracing both approaches in full force.
The familiar formula
With Pepsi Apple Pie, we also begin to unpack the formula behind the new nostalgia.
Cereals, like those of General Mills, have sold well during the pandemic, jumping 7% as people turn back to familiar flavors. That’s nostalgia.
To create the new nostalgia, however, you start with a known flavor or brand: Pepsi. Then you take another known flavor: apple pie. Both are extremely familiar to consumers, to the point of being dull. But together? It’s something adventurous that you just have to try.
“For the most part when someone makes a purchase in retail, they still want to know a bit of what they’re getting. It’s a balance, a tension, of what’s familiar and what’s new,” says Brian Neumann, associate director at the Kraft Heinz Co. “A home run is when you provide a new take on something relatively known.”
Kraft Heinz has used this strategy for years. Mayochup, a combination of ketchup and mayo in one bottle, made waves on social media when it hit the market in 2018 as a permanent product. Again, it was informed by a behavior Heinz had seen—people mix mayo and ketchup to dip fries into or slather on burgers. When it debuted, Mayochup sold double what the company projected. Today it’s available in grocery stores nationwide.
In 2020, the company launched limited offerings of a candy-flavored Kraft dinner around Valentine’s Day, and a pumpkin spice Kraft dinner in fall. Sound gross? In this case, that’s on purpose to generate free marketing. “There are certain takes you will have that will be crowd-pleasers, but what drives the most conversation is the most polarizing,” Neumann says.
The need for old indulgence
Ultimately, these flavors are an opportunity for something we’ve needed during stressful lockdown: indulgence. During 2020, Kraft Heinz saw that without a commute people were taking time out of their day to eat breakfast again. This was a good moment for the company’s new comfort-based frozen breakfast called Crave. But to promote indulgence during COVID-19, Kraft Heinz changed the approach.
Instead of labeling its product for breakfast, it called it “all-day breakfast,” giving consumers permission to do the dining equivalent of wearing their robe all afternoon.
Indulgence is also key at Mars Ice Cream—makers of Snickers Ice Cream bars. Ice cream sales were up 26% during the second quarter of the pandemic, according to Unilever. As marketing director Jayesh Shah explains, the top 10 ice cream flavors have been stable for decades—simple mainstays like vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. But novel flavors drive buzz.
In 2020, Mars Ice Cream remixed the perennial top 10 seller cookies and cream as “Twix Cookies and Cream” (which won best new product in Convenience Store News), and it drove 50% of brand dollar growth that year. In 2021, the company is following up with an even grander new-nostalgia launch, Snickers Peanut Butter Brownie Ice Cream Bars. They are like a triple-decker childhood memory (ice cream) sandwich; so far, they’ve grown the Snickers Ice Cream brand by 11%.
“Look at how people are behaving right now: Consumers are rife with uncertainty,” Shah says. “That’s where we’ve found we can amp up ice cream flavors under brands they recognize.”
The same sentiment appears in the alcohol industry. “I definitely think we’re seeing this [new nostalgia], and it’s been something accelerated by the pandemic,” says Jake Kirsch, VP of innovation at Anheuser-Busch. “It’s not just about the crazy flavors, though that’s an element of it. It’s this whole novel [mix] that borrows from nostalgia, for an easy way to indulge a little and treat myself [amid] so much craziness.”
Anheuser-Busch believes the trend will grow over the summer. “If we have a hypothesis, it’s that summer can be an accelerant on this whole opportunity,” Kirsch says. “There’s a demand that’s pent up. People will get together and want a release.”
Alcohol sales ballooned by 75% in the early days of the pandemic (with potential long-term consequences on people’s health). During this time, though, people weren’t just boozing their stress away. Many were chasing the familiar. Kirsch points to the $94 million category of frozen cocktails, a once sleepy part of the alcohol business that exploded 128% between 2019 and 2020, according to Sensor Session Remesh Research, as adults chased frozen treats like boozy popsicles inspired by their youth.
In turn, Anheuser-Busch is launching two new products specifically to satisfy our childhood cravings. The first is the Bud Light Seltzer Retro Summer Variety Pack. This is a hard-seltzer pack, but instead of watered down, hipster flavors of LaCroix like Pamplemousse, they’ll be available in Blue Raspberry and Cherry Limeade—flavors that taste like candy from the 1980s and ’90s. The same flavors will be released as Bud Light Seltzer Frozen Popsicles, which push the nostalgia a step further in tie-dye packaging.
Even as more of us are able to get together and the pandemic wanes, Anheuser-Busch suspects new nostalgia is here to stay. Because there’s another looming reality for America’s rapidly aging youth that will require all of us to grab the nearest source of comfort. “You also have the first millennials turning 40,” Kirsch says. “What better time than when you hit midlife to look back and say, ‘I’m not old! Let me pick up some Naturday Ice Pops or a Bud Light [popsicle]!'”