Justin Lambeth and Gannon Jones, Frito-Lay | Adweek Justin Lambeth and Gannon Jones, Frito-Lay | Adweek
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Justin Lambeth and Gannon Jones, Frito-Lay

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Photograph by Van Ditthavong

Frito-Lay knew it had a problem when it asked some of its consumers what its Lay's potato chips were made of and most had to give the question some thought.

Instead of spuds, consumers thought of the factory. They deemed the product "heavily processed, full of preservatives and one-third of Americans didn't realize it was made with potatoes," recalls Frito-Lay marketing vp Gannon Jones. "When we heard that point, we were like, 'Wow! I can't believe that!'"

How did this happen? The disconnect was emblematic of the larger forces shaping the food industry: Given Big Food's numerous product recalls, confusion about what's organic and what's not and the medical community's increasing demonization of salt, consumers don't trust their food.

For Lay's, the problem was particularly vexing. In 2008, the PepsiCo-owned brand had seen consumption declining among its most passionate fans for the past three years. The times just weren't right for an indulgent snack. Lay's venerable tagline, "Betcha can't eat just one," was actually backfiring. According to market research, the tag prompted consumers to cut back on their consumption of the chips. Such people "still love Lay's, but they were having second thoughts," says Justin Lambeth, a Frito-Lay marketing vp who helped conceive of, and then lead, the initial repositioning strategy that followed. (Jones oversaw the subsequent marketing effort.) Consumers also had no idea where Lay's were made.

So Lay's did a total 180. In February 2009, the brand launched a campaign that was all about potatoes. The effort wound up restoring sales by linking the product to spuds, dirt and farming. The result was a dramatic recovery. According to PepsiCo, the chip brand actually grew the most of any packaged-goods product last year, with dollar sales up 13.3 percent to $1.6 billion. Lay's dollar sales rose 28.4 percent from the time the campaign launched (February 2009) to the four weeks ended July 11, the most recent period for which data was available, per SymphonyIRI. (The data excludes Walmart, club and liquor store sales.)

On the other hand, prior to the campaign, the brand looked like a helpless giant. Lay's is not only the nation's favorite potato chip with a 64.3 percent household penetration, it is also the largest U.S. food brand. That, however, gave the marketers a lot to work with. The 72-year-old Lay's is ingrained in consumers' childhoods, showing up everywhere from Fourth of July barbecue parties to Sunday football games with dad, research found.

That brand lineage, combined with the fact that Lay's is actually made with three simple ingredients—"potatoes, all-natural oil and a dash of salt"—gave the agency, Juniper Park, the eureka moment for what the campaign should look like. "[We needed] to tell people what these things are made with, [so] they love eating them and feel good about eating them as well," says Terry Drummond, executive creative director at the Omnicom agency, which worked with Lay's on the effort.

Hence the new tagline, "Happiness is simple." While equating potato chips with happiness may seem a stretch, the thinking was that, in most cases, the target consumer is a woman who is also the "memory keeper in her house, the one who takes the photographs of the family and puts them in frames and hangs them up on walls," Drummond says. Since Lay's plays a huge part in consumers' early and adult childhood life, it's also part of that happiness. "It's a value we took to heart," Drummond says of his team's recognition and adherence to that concept in the making of the campaign. As an example, "How many people have gone to school, opened up their lunch boxes and found a bag of Lay's put in there by their mothers?"

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