A few weeks back, you might have been one of the dazzled millions who watched the event on ABC’s The View or CBS’s The Early Show, or read about it in USA Today. No, we’re not talking about the final launch of the space shuttle. It was the debut of Orville Redenbacher’s new Pop-Up Bowl. Okay, so maybe it was a slow news week. But consumer products rarely, if ever, get this kind of major media play. To give the Redenbacher folks their due, the new product that unfolds, pops, and then transforms itself into an actual bowl right inside the microwave (a kind of origami in reverse) was fairly stimulating—if you like to watch microwaves.
But the perky entertainment value of the product obscures a harder business reality at work: Microwave popcorn is actually a highly competitive business that’s lately become more about engineering than food. (It's profitable too: Americans spend just under a billion dollars a year on popcorn, most of it the kind you make at home.) As it turns out, the quest for a puff-up, disposable bowl has preoccupied Redenbacher parent Con Agra’s R&D department for a very long time. According to communications manager Genevieve Mazzeo, early prototypes of the product have been on the company drawing boards as far back as the 1990s and a concerted effort has been "two or three years in the making."
That's pretty intense stuff for a product that's changed little since Act II introduced America to microwave popcorn back in 1984. The problem was that all microwave popcorn containers—which are shaped pretty much like brown lunch bags—had to be torn open on their sides. As focus groups revealed again and again, escaping steam would scald customers' hands and "you’d get that oily, salty stuff on your shirt," said Dave Linne, Con-Agra’s senior vp of advertising. "It wasn’t the greatest thing, so we wanted to address that."
While ConAgra won't say exactly how it's addressed that (a patent application for the Pop-Up Bowl has been filed, Mazzeo assured us), the key difference seems to be a cat's-eye-shaped outer paper shell that keeps the inner popping bag from assuming its traditionally boxy shape. When popped, the new product fills out into what looks like a paper boat—bow-shaped sides and two flat bottoms. Rotate it 90 degrees and tear off the top, and you've got your "bowl" instead of a bag. "It wasn’t that they really changed the packaging," Linne says. "But we had it stand up and then open on the longer side."
Of course, this relatively straightforward adjustment hasn't stopped ConAgra from airing commercials featuring illusionist Criss Angel who mysteriously transforms the bag into a bowl before an astonished suburban couple. Pure magic? More like pure R&D. But you can decide. This is ConAgra's official demo, and an average consumer does the popping here.