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How snack makers might cash in on consumers’ growing interest in play

football helmetsWhile the snack industry has always reflected a cultural interest in fun and festivity, it’s most recently been hyper-focused on convenience and health to capitalize on the growing number of snacking occasions among American consumers. 

Although the emphasis on healthier snacks remains a challenging proposition – in part because the consumer’s definition of what constitutes a snack is ever evolving – convenience has delivered some near-term wins. 

The industry has done an effective job of getting more snacks into the hands of consumers on a more frequent basis. But at least some of that greater frequency is embedded in the well-documented increase in American snacking occasions. 

A new opportunity stems from a cultural shift toward food as play. Food shopping and eating have become less about what consumers want or need than what they are doing, what they are making and how they are playing. 

Play is a sought-after experience that snacks are perfectly suited to address. It extends beyond conventional boundaries of fun and flavor to an indulgence in food with a spirit of frivolity and whimsy. 

People have grown accustomed to enjoying some of the “extreme flavors” served up by a snack business with a penchant for horizontal SKU expansion. And they have fun eating popcorn in a theater or in front of the television at home. 

But this play thing, it’s something more. 

To clarify, let’s consider a development in the world of sports. 

Folks have been watching and enjoying sports together for hundreds of years. Aside from them now being able to follow a game on radio and television, the spectator role has been fairly static – until a surge of interest in something known as fantasy sports. 

Fantasy sports are games in which ordinary people build imaginary teams of professional athletes and compete against each other based on statistics generated by the real-life professional players and teams. 

Not content to be mere fans who gather with friends to watch their teams compete, viewers have imagined an entirely new world of competition based on the realm of the abstract and hypothetical. 

Just like kids tossing a football around and imagining that they are in the Super Bowl, this is play at its purest. Participants pretend to manage dream teams of players as if they were the coach, general manager and owner rolled into one. 

All of this play is very big business. 

Brian Groff at Forbes figures $11 billion goes toward fantasy football – while the NFL’s total revenues for 2013 were just $10 billion. And that doesn’t include the estimated $13 billion in lost productivity to employers from folks playing fantasy games at work. 

Watching and enjoying sports together is one of Americans’ most cherished pastimes. It’s also a great occasion for snacking. If 33 million Americans are excited enough to spend money on an imagined realm of sports based on abstract, complex performance statistics, imagine the outcome if the food industry began to use its complex machinery to deliver more playful, possibly complex, snack creations. 

Frito-Lay appears to get it. The company recently filed a patent on a method to create “chunky 3D” snacks by adhering large flakes of meat and vegetables to chips. Think about all those snacks at a happy hour buffet – pizza, nachos, sandwiches, tacos. Now shrink them, make them shelf stable and offer them in bags and boxes. Voilà, 3D snacks! (Not to be confused with Frito-Lay’s failed “Doritos 3D” chips, which were essentially just puffy chips, back in the early 2000s.) 

Frito-Lay parent PepsiCo is getting on board, too. It recently filed a patent for a chewy granola bar with carbonated candy – essentially, Pop Rocks. 

Even high-end restaurants, the venues from which many consumer trends take shape, are experimenting with all manner of food textures, forms and presentations. This journalist’s account of dinner at René Redzepi’s revered Noma in Denmark is all about the play:

Once seated, you’re told that the first series of courses will be bite-size treats intended to awaken the palate. Ours began with a playful surprise: The first course was tucked inside the table’s gorgeous and seemingly innocuous flower arrangement--flatbread shaped like the branch of a tree…. That emotion tipped even further over the line with the presentation of a terra cotta flower pot bursting with sprigs of carrot greens emerging from soil that was covering a thick, bright green sauce made of asparagus. All of it was meant to be eaten with our fingers. "There better not be anything left in that pot when I get back," a waiter/chef playfully taunted. The edible dirt turned out to be finger-licking good.

If people will fly across the world and spend many hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to dig through flower pots to munch on flatbreads shaped like tree branches, is it such a leap to expect them to consider a bag of pizza or exploding granola bars?   

We are not suggesting that marketers, manufacturers and brand teams drop what they are doing and begin making fizzy pretzels. Some traditional snacks may well continue to play an important role in indulgent snacking occasions. 

On the other hand, the wisest CPG companies and their innovation teams should heed this cultural move toward play, both to maintain relevance as well as to capitalize on new opportunities in snacking occasions.


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Technology/Social Media


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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