business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

After 14 million entries, the Lay’s Do Us A Flavor create a potato chip contest has narrowed the field to four finalists, and the early favorite in online commentary is…

Sour Grapes.

Actually, the four flavors vying for the $1 million prize are Cappuccino, Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese, Wavy Mango Salsa and Kettle Cooked Wasabi Ginger. The 9.5 ounce packages, complete with the name and photo of each flavor’s creator, hit store shelves last week.

But thousands of disgruntled also-rans are flooding Lay’s Facebook page with irate complaints about the flavors and the selection process, illustrating just how unpredictable, volatile and noisy social media can be.

Lay’s launched its first U.S. Do Us A Flavor contest last year, and chose three finalists from 4 million entries. A Wisconsin librarian took home $1 million for her Cheesy Garlic Bread creation, still on the market.

The Pepsi-owned brand said the tripled number of entries this year “blew us away.” A panel of chefs, foodies and flavor experts chose final four based on flavor name, three potential ingredients, chip style, and a 140-character description or inspiration for the flavor. Lay’s culinary team created the chip.

Consumers are asked to vote for their favorite via Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, YouTube or text message now through Oct. 18th, with hashtags such as #savewasabi and hometown promotions.

The Facebook rants began the minute the finalists were announced. The following are typical posts:

“I studied flavor for years and submitted over 500 flavors. And they came up with the most disgusting ones??? Literally they’ve been tested and proved to be spit on the ground disgusting. It had to be rigged.”

“I agree. How does Wasabi Ginger beat out my Buffalo Chicken pizza and Buffalo Wings & Beer? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“They lined it up so that the fire fighter that has a new born baby can win just so they look good. The only logical flavor is Bacon Mac, the others are just there for show.”

“Cappuccino?????????? Gross.”

Lay’s did not respond on Facebook, but my response to the bellyachers is this: Taste the chip, then rate it. Frito-Lay would not sink millions, months and shelf space into an inedible snack. I located the finalists in four of five area supermarkets, mixed in with other Lay’s and chip products, but none were in the stand-alone contest display I saw in an online photo. For Lay’s and the retailer, that’s a missed opportunity.

This clearly called for an MNB taste test, so we assembled a target audience panel: six judges, ages 13 to 28, gathered at the local swim club where my 19-year-old daughter Emily is a lifeguard.

For comparison sake, the panelists treated their palates to the 2013 winner, Cheesy Garlic Bread, and then moved on the finalists. The clear winner: Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese – “it combines the world’s favorite comfort foods into one chip,” said 13-year-old Luke, summing up the judges’ findings.

Wasabi Ginger came in second, praised for its “kick.” Wavy Mango Salsa placed third, tasting too much like a fruity gum for our panel. Not surprisingly, the much-maligned Cappuccino placed last with five of the six tasters – “too sweet, too much cinnamon for a salted snack.”

Not my personal preference either, but certainly not deserving of a “disgusting” diatribe on Facebook. The negativity illustrates the perils in crowdsourcing and social media, as we see a shift in the balance of power over to consumers.

In the past a company could run a contest, collect ballots/votes, and authoritatively announce the winner. Now the dissent threatens to undermine the entire campaign and sink Lay’s goal of engaging with its consumers. It’s as if social media serves as a megaphone for the cranky losers in the corner, with the cacophony drowning out any meaningful content.

Could Lay’s quiet the critics by responding on Facebook or acknowledging their entries? That’s a tall order. Meanwhile, the finalists are actively promoting their flavors on Twitter and the chips are reaching consumers, which could help turn this around.

I hope so. It would be too bad if sour grapes ended up the winner.

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