The real secret behind product-design contests like Frito Lay’s “Do Us a Flavour”

Consumer contests like this are about market research, not product development

Shopping basket full of chip bags

Consumer contests like Frito Lay’s “Do Us a Flavour” campaign are more about market research than product development. (Ronit Novak)

The names of the finalists in Frito Lay Canada’s Do Us a Flavour contest, where people are invited to invent a brand-new chip, sound more like parodies than actual products. “Bacon Poutine”? “Cinnamon Bun”? Neither seems like a strong contender to unseat Salt & Vinegar.

But such contests aren’t designed to invent a new classic snack. The Lay’s competition, which has also run in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere, has rarely led to the creation of a permanent flavour. And while last year’s contest (its inaugural year in Canada) resulted in a 5% rise in overall market share for Lay’s, publicity isn’t the main reason to hold an attention-getting competition. Tim Hortons’ recent Duelling Donuts challenge, Air Canada’s Facebook campaign to name its new no-frills airline and an Orbit Gum promotion that used fans’ Facebook data to generate custom gum package designs all served as market research for the companies. Contests allow them to track which customers are engaging with their brands—and how.

The concept of using online engagement as a way to understand consumers, particularly during sweepstakes, has caught on enough to spawn a micro-industry of its own. Zach Mangum, co-founder of Utah-based GroSocial, helps small businesses create contests on social media. He says a well-designed competition can harvest valuable information about both new and loyal customers.

“You inherently get this nice, fresh batch of targeted leads through the promotion,” says Mangum, who is also vice-president of GroSocial’s parent company, Infusionsoft.

Curalate, a Philadelphia-based firm, has created a platform to help companies gather, compile and analyze their brand-engagement tweets, likes and even photos across multiple social networks. (An algorithm that can scan untold Instagram photos for images of your product is a great way to reduce wear and tear on your marketing department’s eyeballs.)

In the case of Lay’s, its Do Us a Flavour contest has yielded a more informed, granular picture of how people prefer to engage with the brand, particularly online, says Susan Irving, director of marketing for PepsiCo Food Canada, which owns Frito Lay Canada. “What we found is that social media continues to bust at the seams in terms of new channels,” she says. “As we evaluated last year’s program, we found that consumers want to engage on other channels as well.” Last year fans could only vote through Facebook; this year, they can tweet, Instagram and text, too.

There’s no question that Tim Hortons was keeping a close eye on who was most engaged with its Duelling Donuts competition, which wrapped up at the end of August. (The peanut-laden double-branded Love Reese’s to Pieces took the prize over such qualified runners-up as the bacon-topped Lumberjack.) With aging boomers making up the majority of its most loyal customers, the coffee chain is keen on drawing in younger consumers, says Doug Hunter, author of Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time.

“Tim’s would be concerned about, ‘What’s the demographic?’ ‘Who’s getting excited?,” he says.

The hitch is that big data doesn’t automatically translate into big insights, says Robert Levy, president of Toronto-based research and branding firm BrandSpark International, which develops quantitative consumer survey methods.

“As a marketing promotion or gimmick, it’s cool,” he says of product-inventing sweepstakes. But he cautions that when anyone can vote in a contest with just one click, it’s hard for companies to know how votes will result in new buying habits. “Data can be good, but it can also cloud people’s perspectives,” says Levy. The challenge is to “harness the power of mobile and social media, without losing the discipline of research.” To do that requires sophisticated surveys that ask consumers about brand recognition and purchasing patterns.

The challenge, then, may be in interpreting whether online engagement creates real customers. Facebook likes are cheap. But chip lovers who will keep coming back six months after the contest is over? Now that’s what companies really crave.