Q&A: Frito-Lay’s New CMO on Why the Brand Is Making Doritos Out of Cardboard

And what flavor has to do with the election

Over the years, Frito-Lay has tried some pretty wild things to get the public excited about snacks. From spotlighting its potato farmers to dipping chips in chocolate to letting the public shoot its Super Bowl spots, the $14 billion PepsiCo subsidiary clearly isn't afraid to take a few risks—including manufacturing Doritos out of cardboard.

Jennifer Saenz Courtesy of Frito-Lay

Just in time for election season, and in partnership with Rock the Vote, Doritos has unveiled "Boldest Choice." The campaign encourages young Americans to vote by reminding them that failing to choose is the equivalent of choosing nothing. How's it do that?

With flavorless chips. (We'll explain below.)

Like much of Frito-Lay's unusual marketing in recent years, this latest initiative is the work of Jennifer Saenz, who after years of leading innovation strategy moved into the CMO's office in February. Business brought Saenz to New York last week where Adweek met her for a bite and a quick chat.

Adweek: The goal of "Boldest Choice" is to get young people out to vote—but how does voting reinforce the brand message for Doritos?

Jennifer Saenz: The narrative that we have on Doritos is really about bold action. That bold action can take many forms, whether it's in the form of entertainment or movies or music or, in this case, engagement in the democratic process. What we try to do as a brand is stay relevant in consumer conversation, and the election is a really popular topic.

The election is really polarizing, too, and brands usually don't like to get near anything that might alienate one group or another. Is that a risk here?

We're not really talking about partisan issues. For us, it's really about participation.

You guys made a bag of cardboard chips and labeled it "Doritos No Choice"—and it's filled with triangular chips made of cardboard. Assuming you're not going to sell these in stores, how will people encounter them?

There are two ways. First, people can go to Doritos.com/vote for an opportunity to get a bag sent either to themselves or to someone they know that's not registered. The other way is with six customized vending machines we're doing on college campuses. The machine asks if you're registered to vote, and if the answer is "no," we deliver the No Choice bag. It's a simple way to bring the idea of choice to a level everyone can relate to.

Was upper management nervous about putting cardboard in a bag and calling it Doritos?

It was a bold step to put cardboard chips in that bag, especially when typically we're trying to raise the appetite appeal.

In one sense, though, it's consistent with other marketing you've done—like "Flavor Swap," where consumers voted for their favorite chip, and "Do Us a Flavor," where consumers suggest new chip flavors. So it's all … participatory.

I completely agree. Consumers don't want to be marketed to. They don't want to be talked at about brands, and for us it's really how are we having an ongoing dialogue. There are a lot of opportunities for us to continue a conversation and not always have a selling message.

Speaking of same, after a decade of running "Crash the Super Bowl"—your annual contest that lets fans shoot their own spots for the big game—you've announced that this year was the last. So, where do you go now?

We're trying always to be ahead and make sure what the next big thing is. I'd say that you're just going to have to wait and see.