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The opportunities and challenges at snack brand Popchips read like a marketing  textbook discussion. Maybe even a B-school final essay prompt. Your brand has set new standards for start-up speed, category innovation, retail distribution, celebrity marketing and social media. Your brand has done such a good job that the international packaged goods giants have taken notice. Those CPG giants don’t think about new categories for a very long time. And when they go, they go big.

“I can tell you that everything we do from a sales and marketing standpoint goes back to our brand roots,” says Michael Parisi, senior vice president of marketing. “We are engaged and connected emotionally. We are cool, relevant and flexible to our consumer needs. Our success is a testament to the brand values we started with.”

Those values landed Popchips on the Brand Innovators Made In America Top 25 Brands To Watch list.  It is one of the fastest growing snacks brands in North America and the UK, it started the snack category of popped (not fried) corn chips, made with whole grains “no preservatives, no cholesterol and no dirty secrets.” In some ways since its launch in 2007 it has played the rebel brand, but its distribution has quickly gone beyond challenger status. Popchips are now sold at over 30,000 retailers across North America and the UK, including Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Kroger, Target, Walgreens, Wegmans, and Costco.

That distribution is strategy number one for Popchips as it preps for what it sure to be a Frito-Lay and Kellogg’s-based category intro. Just to give you some perspective on scale, Pringles has 25 million Facebook fans. Strategy number two is also a two-sided play between rebel brand and efficient CPG marketer. That one is celebrity. Popchips’ fans include Katy Perry, Ashton Kutcher, Jillian Michaels, and Sean (Diddy) Combs. Then only concert dates Perry will play this summer are Popchips events.

The celebrity endorsement make use of digital media, word-of-mouth, cause marketing and as Parisi said, emotional connection. Example: June 13 was  #popchipstotherescue day in San Francisco. The announcement came on the (cat)tail of a video featuring Perry and her new brand band Katy and the Popcats, which launched the #popchipstotherescue campaign, encouraging snackers to choose Popchips over fried chips when hunger strikes. Brand ambassador teams hit the streets to “rescue” hungry snackers with surprise Popchips snack breaks. To get one, fans tweeted @popchips their case and location using #popchipstothesrescue for a chance to receive a special delivery. Walgreens hosted rescue stations. And then the emotional tie: During the month of June, “Adopt a shelter cat month,” snackers can visit www.popchipstotherescue.com to download a coupon for $.50 off any 3oz or 3.5oz bag of Popchips. In return, popchips donated $.50 to the ASPCA for every coupon redeemed before July 31, 2013, with a minimum donation of $15,000 and a maximum donation of $50,000.

“There are always new ways to engage with snackers and better ways to use social platforms to do that on,” says Parisi. “We believe you can build the brand, build buzz, build distribution and engage all at the same time. That approach has always been part of our roots.”

Back to distribution. Parisi says Popchips embraces its Made In America roots, especially the California part. But no brand can compete globally in this space without an international front, and Popchips has that with Waitrose, the UK’s most popular premium supermarket chain, along with other specialty retailers.

As it executes on its expand and protect strategy, some more objective observers see tremendous opportunity in smaller CPG companies carving out very profitable businesses, even in a world where shelf space is more hotly contested than the NBA Finals. According to a Boston Consulting Group analysis in April, “small and midsize companies are increasingly taking market share from large competitors. All top ten small and midsize companies gained market share in 2012, with eight of the small-company winners grabbing at least 1.0 percentage points. Since 2009, large companies as a group have ceded 1.4 percentage points in market share, a drop that amounts to more than $10 billion in lost sales.”

For now, Parisi is focused on sales metrics, share growth and brand awareness. In one year, he is not worried about the overall market. “We want to make sure we’re leading innovation in marketing and engaging our customers one snacker at a time.”


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by Brandon Gutman
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Brandon is an expert connector and seasoned business development professional. As Principal of Brand Approved, he's led the advisory to become the bridge between brand marketers and best of breed service providers that are reshaping the industry.

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