Why It Took Lay’s 2 Years to Redesign a Bag of Potato Chips

A peek at the design process at PepsiCo's house of crunch

Multiple bags of Lay
With some 25 different Lay’s flavors in the mix, redesigning all the bags took months. Photos courtesy of Lay's
Headshot of Robert Klara

Eighty-seven years ago, a Nashville entrepreneur named Herman Lay began selling chips out of the trunk of his Ford Model A. Things were relatively simple back then. Until Lay began popularizing his salty snacks around the Southeast, potato chips were a delicacy confined to the precincts around Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where (as the most credible story goes) a cook named Katie Speck Wicks accidentally dropped a peeled potato into the hot oil she was using to fry crullers. In any case, Lay’s chips sold themselves back in those days. The packaging wasn’t terribly important.

Nothing could be further from the truth now, of course. While Lay’s is still the category leader in chips—per IRI, it claims a 75.9% market share—there are by one count upwards of 40 companies making chips in America plus untold numbers of regional brands. (Search for “potato chips” on Amazon, and you’ll get 592 results.) Globally, potato chips are a $29 billion industry, according to Imarc Group, and it’s expected to hit $35 billion in five years.

Which is to say that even a famous bag of chips like Lay’s needs to stand out to stay relevant. And that marketing maxim probably explains why the design team at Lay’s has spent the past two years working on a new design for its potato chip bags—a look that will begin its national rollout next week.

Why should it take two years to redo a chip bag? Well, in practice, Lay’s, a division of PepsiCo’s snack colossus Frito-Lay, actually has to redo scores of chip bags, since it sells over 25 flavors and has variants—reduced fat, less sodium—for each. What’s more, the range of flavors is broad, from its Classic salted chips to something called Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup. And each flavor boasts a set of existing fans with their own familiarities and expectations. So when it comes to engineering a new design language that will work across the entire line, as vice president of marketing Sadira Furlow put it, “It’s going to take some time to get that right.”

Consumers got a sneak peek at the new bag design on Sept. 9, when the new Flamin’ Hot Dill Pickle flavor appeared on store shelves. After first appearing as a limited-time offering earlier this year, FHDP is not now a permanent part of the lineup, and its purple bag with flame-singed corners highlights a new package design that will soon be standard.

The particulars of that design are in the graphics below, but the process of producing the design is as notable as the visual results.

Ask the tribe what it likes

Lay’s used a consumer-led design approach in the multistage process of creating the bags’ new look. Rather than aiming for a target demographic (say, millennial males), it first assembled a “tribe” of people—in this case, those who base food-purchase decisions on flavor. Lay’s then accompanied these consumers on so-called “shop-alongs” to see how they choose different products. After drawing up a formal design brief, the Lay’s team then developed six or 10 new design concepts and ran them past its tribe, in turn developing more prototypes based on those preferences. This process can repeat itself several times as the designers narrow the favored concepts down toward the final product.

“The process is built around prototyping, testing, prototyping,” said Richard Bates, vp of global brand design. “[If] you try something, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You test it with a consumer. You learn from that. You iterate. And you do that as many times as makes sense.”

Keeping things simple

The final product is bound to strike some as surprisingly basic given all the time and thinking that went into it. But for Lay’s, simplicity is the logical course for three reasons.

First, the buyer of a bag of chips might just as easily be an adolescent as an octogenarian and hail from any socioeconomic background. Hence, the design must have an accessibility that lets everyone in.

“It was very important to make sure that our brand architecture told a story [that] was very simple,” said Jon Guerra, senior director of design. An intuitive composition, Guerra added, assured that “the youngest person can understand. You can’t have something that’s fun and joyful if it’s complex and [gives people] a hard time.”

Second, because the purchase decision for a snack food is often made on the fly, a bag of chips has precious little time in which to distinguish itself.

“If you go to any [store] and see the assortment that’s there, there are a lot of choices,” Furlow said. The bag must “enable you to make a decision in a split second.”

The influence of ecommerce

Finally, there’s the changing landscape of retail itself. Not only is Lay’s competing with more brands, including private-label brands, it’s selling everywhere from supercenter shelves to smartphones. So when it came to putting photos of pickle slices on a rich purple bag in the case of FHDP, the boldness and simplicity of the design will be just as recognizable on a store shelf as on a computer screen.

“Having things that are telegraphic helps [shoppers] find us, whether we’re in the aisle physically or online,” Furlow said.

As the products of this thought process begin hitting the market, there’s one other factor that Lay’s design team bore in mind as it tweaked the famous bag: the fact that Lay’s has existing fans who’d be happy with no changes at all. This crowd, Furlow said, must be assured “that you haven’t gone too far and taken anything drastic and messed it up.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.