But our appetite for cheap fat-laden crisps is not insatiable. In fact, by the end of the nineties it was clear that the market for bog-standard crisps was approaching saturation. For future growth Walkers needed to colonize the rapidly expanding premium sector. Here the fastest growing brand was Kettle Chips, a hand-cooked gourmet crisp sold at a hefty price premium from Kettle Foods.
Given its deep pockets, Walkers could have launched a copycat brand. It did not; possibly because it recognized that its mass-market image would tell against it, or because it considered the gourmet hand-cooked market to be too niche and too far removed from its existing heavily-automated operations. What Walkers did spot and exploit, however, was an opportunity to introduce an up-market harder-bite crisp, Walkers Sensations, aimed exclusively at adults, particularly young to middle-aged women, and priced somewhere between gourmet crisps and the lunchbox ballast that made the Walkers brand famous.
Though clearly inspired by Kettle Chips, Sensations was presented not as genuine luxury, but as an “everyday” treat for grown-ups, which people could enjoy at the end of the day, perhaps with a glass of wine. Crucially, the brand was priced only 20 percent above ordinary crisps, making it accessible to mainstream consumers. This was possible because, unlike “hand-cooked” Kettle Chips, Sensations are manufactured on a conveyor belt, bringing large economies of scale.
Being both mainstream and premium is tricky. Many mass-market brands that have trodden this path, such as Nestlé with its Double Cream chocolate, have ended up with an offer that is too run-of-the-mill for discerning consumers and too pricey for the mass market. Sensations avoided this fate. To understand how, we need to look at how Walkers went about communicating the idea behind the brand.
Sensations’ advertising is pure camp, poking fun at the gap between Sensations’ brand parentage and its “posh” aspirations. For the launch, Walkers hired Victoria Beckham, AKA “Posh Spice” of girl-band fame, to star alongside former footballer Gary Lineker—Walkers’ long-standing brand ambassador. However, Sensations’ packaging is not comic. It is genuinely stylish. So how can a schizophrenic communications strategy turn out to be a winner?
The answer is that Walkers read the tastes of its target audience very well. At the start of the project, the design team took time out to study trends in home interiors. The reasoning behind this approach—which involved trips to IKEA and Habitat and watching TV makeover shows—was that to get consumers to pay extra, Sensations needed to look aspirational, different to the value crisps that mums were buying for their kids, but still contemporary and not too niche.
As well as looking nice, Sensations’ packaging does a great PR job for its tasty fat-rich contents. Pick up a packet of oven-roasted chicken and thyme and what you see are golden brown chicken breasts scattered with herbs. Across the top are some earthy images of a ploughed field and a homespun wicker basket filled with newly harvested potatoes.
Turn to the back and you discover what looks like a recipe panel, describing how the product recreates “the succulence of Mediterranean roast chicken, infused with thyme and touches of basil, rosemary and oregano.” A more lyrical blurb follows, evoking “warm sunshine flavors.”
Somewhere, in smaller print, is a full list of the ingredients, flavorings and flavor enhancers from which Sensations are manufactured, including that old staple of the food production industry: monosodium glutamate. But the artistic imagery is so convincing—right down to showing the name of the celebrated photographer hired to shoot the food illustrations (David Loftus)—that the gap between the rustic myth and the ersatz reality is easily missed.
Having worked so hard to create a sense of provenance, it might seem strange that Walkers should puncture the illusion with tongue-in-cheek advertising. When questioned, Derek Johnston, creative director at Landor, explains the contradiction in this way: “Walkers is a company which takes the quality of its products very seriously, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.” Re-phrasing his words, one might say that Walkers is a company that understands where it can and cannot go. It presents its premium products as a little special, but knows better than to pose as a genuinely foodie brand.
The psychology behind Sensations’ positioning has worked well. Since the launch in February 2002, annual sales have mushroomed to something around £100 million (US$ 187M), making the brand one of the most successful FMCG launches of recent years. The range of foods offered under the brand umbrella has also been expanded, with the introduction of Oriental Crackers, Nut Clusters and Poppadom Bites. This broadens the base of Walkers’ portfolio and creates a platform for the company to strengthen its position in the overall snacks market, which Mintel predicts will grow at around 9 percent in real terms over the five-year period to 2007.
British consumers may be crisped out, but a flair for innovation and skillful marketing ensures that Walkers will go on doing its bit for our spreading waistlines regardless.