Jeremy King, CEO and Founder, Attest .
You’ve been here before. The supermarket snacks and chips aisle, overwhelmed by the varieties of crunchy, salty goodness. While new brands hit the shelves every day, one tortilla chip has amassed brand recognition like no other.
Frito-Lay launched Doritos, the first tortilla chip to be sold across the U.S., in 1966 with the “toasted corn” flavor. The reception was muted, with some consumers complaining they were bland. Frito-Lay listened, and when it launched ” taco flavor ” Doritos in 1967 , it set a precedent for future success.
Fast-forward to today, and Doritos are the top fried corn snack in the U.S. Frito-Lay is comfortably the biggest tortilla chip vendor in the country with some 1.89 billion units sold from May 2021 to May 2022. Doritos also have a huge global footprint, stocked by retailers the world over.
Consumer research—truly knowing the target customers, and how they differ in each market—is the real hero of the Doritos story, and here’s why.
Using Insights To Inform Strategy
Cracking a new market is never easy—even for brands with a track record of domestic success.
In 1994, PepsiCo identified the U.K. as a country that enjoyed snacking but didn’t currently have a popular fried corn snack. While there were dozens of brands of ” crisps, ” as Brits call them, almost all were potato- or wheat-based, highlighting a tortilla-shaped gap in the market.
Prior to the launch of Doritos in the U.K. market, Peter Thompson, then-president of PepsiCo’s British snack-food subsidiary Walkers Smiths Snack Foods, shared his company conducted an unprecedented amount of consumer research to develop a version of Doritos tailored to Brits. What followed was a windfall of success.
One of the key insights was British snackers found the original product too thick. So, U.K. Doritos needed to be thinner.
Another finding was Brits didn’t understand the names of the flavors. In the U.S., cool ranch (ranch dressing being an undeniable American favorite ) and nacho cheese were, and continue to be, iconic Doritos flavors. But at the time in the U.K., corn chip flavors were considered too spicy, rendering these flavors irrelevant to local tastes. That’s how cool ranch became cool original and nacho cheese became tangy cheese. PepsiCo even decided to throw in a completely new, British flavor: savory beef. Simple moves, informed by great research.
Within 10 years, the British public was eating around £93 million worth of tortilla chips per year, with Doritos enjoying a market share of 79% .
Research Provides Insights Beyond The Launch
Six years after the U.K. launch, consumer research helped the company pinpoint another opportunity.
It found people were most likely to have a snacking gap in the evening at home, whether in front of the TV or with friends. Doritos’ big bags unlocked this gap by signaling a different eating occasion than single-serve bags.
The identification of the ” home evening snacking ” opportunity led to the creation of a new version of Doritos: Dippas Dips and Chips. Remember those? Large, shareable packets and jars of dip, backed by a £7 million ad campaign using the tag line “Friendchips.”
Sales skyrocketed, and the concept was replicated in other countries including South Africa, Australia, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Key Takeaways From Doritos’ Story
Doritos’ story is a masterclass for ambitious brands: Building your localization strategy around research early on is how you achieve global dominance later.
No matter how successful you’ve been in one market, there are no guarantees that you’ll be able to replicate this in another. Despite the similarities between the U.S. and U.K. snack markets at the time—with Brits eating 5.28 pounds of potato chips per year per person compared to Americans’ 6.16 pounds—there were also some make-or-break differences. This kind of in-depth market analysis PepsiCo carried out is the best way to validate a big new venture or even more routine business decisions.
Never underestimate the power of localized consumer profiling.
If you are trying to target a new market, it’s imperative that you uncover demographic data like age, gender, race and location, but also tap into psychographic insights. These include your audience’s personality traits, values, attitudes, interests and lifestyles. These were what led PepsiCo to identify their U.K. target consumers’ willingness to share: fundamental to the success of the Friendchips campaign. It also helped them understand what kinds of chip flavors would resonate.
Take time to understand how your target market speaks.
What makes them tick? What kind of language are they receptive to? This will help you formulate questions that adhere to both the tone, grammar and cultural norms of any specific audience. For example, Doritos was likely careful to use British-English in their survey questions instead of American-English, down to spelling “flavour” the proper way and referring to “chips” as “crisps” instead. Although small, these details truly matter and foster a healthy relationship with respondents.
Remove bias from your questions.
While we don’t have access to the exact questions that Frito-Lay asked in their own consumer research, we can assume they were targeted to uncover key truths about U.K. tastebuds. For example, they likely asked, “What are your current feelings toward corn crisps?” versus a biased and leading question such as, “Do you like nacho cheese Doritos?” The value of the former question is that it leaves room for the respondents to share what exactly they do or don’t love about corn chips, not a simple question of their preference to an at-the-time obscure American staple.
With the above key takeaways in mind, this Doritos case study is proof of the value of structured consumer insight which can act as a foundation for executional flair. When examined up close it may seem like common sense, but common sense is rarely common practice.
The name Doritos means “small golden things” in Spanish . Personally, I like to think that the small golden things in question aren’t actually the tortilla chips, but the multiple points of consumer insights alchemy upon which the brand’s global success was built.
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