Pringles has a secret recipe for an irresistible snack

Consider Pringle. Familiar cardboard tubes made of synthetic potato chips humbly settled on a shelf in the convenience store I visited this week, almost hidden by bags of Doritos, Walker’s Sunbites, sea salt and Chardonnay wine. Amid such company, no one would mistake Pringles for a healthy or luxurious treat.

However, when Kellogg announced its plans to divide itself into three separate companies this week, it didn’t place its biggest bet on Corn Flakes invented by the Kellogg brothers in 1894. Instead, it stressed the possibilities of delicious snacks, led by its unique brand of its kind. Processed potato chips.

Pringles is thriving, although it began with the commercial failure of the Procter & Gamble research chemists who invented the saddle-shaped snack in the 1960s as a competitor to potato chips. Other snacks, from cereal bars to crackers, are also selling out fast as people switch from eating three meals a day to regular grazing, but this one excels. What are his secrets?

One is its consistency. Pringles last an annoyingly long time. The products you purchased expire in July of next year. It’s not quite fresh, but it won’t start growing until the tube is popped: it can be shelved in a warehouse for several months, or taken on a container ship to Australia, and shown to be still edible.

That was the original point of processed foods, after all: extreme reliability and stability. Pringles was a product of the post-war comfort era: The first research was done in the late 1950s by a Procter & Gamble employee named Frederick Bohr, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, and was launched as the “New Pringle Potato Chips” in Indiana. in 1968.

The same quality now makes it particularly well suited to global expansion: As one Kellogg executive noted after it acquired Pringles from P&G a decade ago, “Fantastic brand. No matter where you go in the world, you will find the exact same product.” Pringles is doing well in the US and Europe, but the brand is growing faster in new markets such as Mexico, Turkey and Brazil.

The second secret is diversity. It took Procter & Gamble a long time to perfect Pringles because it was difficult to make processed tablets out of dried potatoes, cooking oil, and flour with great taste. This was also the Space Age, and Pillsbury was producing food cubes for NASA astronauts, but consumers on Earth had a choice.

The sweetness later turned out to be useful: it formed a blank canvas for many flavors. The brand took off in the 1980s after it stopped trying to imitate natural potato chips and instead pursued new sensations. Pringles couldn’t be mistaken for the real thing, but they did offer something else.

Pringles now has 30 flavors in the US alone, including Scorchin’ Chilli and Lime and Sizzl’n Kickin’ Sour Cream. Mondelez acquired organic energy maker Cliff Bar for $2.9 billion this week, but Pringles is taking over the mass market: gram for gram, cheaper than many brittle brands.

Whether or not Pringles are healthy is another matter. Even Kellogg CEO Stephen Cahillan didn’t overpromise his property when I spoke to him this week. “I wouldn’t say it’s at the end of the indulgence period, but it’s clearly not a wellness brand,” he said.

The “Global Snacking Co” of Pringles and Pop-Tarts that Kellogg will create is part of a trend: Companies like Mondelez, which owns Cadbury Chocolate and Oreo biscuits, are growing. A Mondelez survey last year found that 64 percent of consumers in 12 countries now prefer eating more small meals each day, and are keen on what it calls “allowable indulgence.”

And it’s no coincidence that many are getting fatter: About 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. The problem was neatly summed up by the 1990s Pringles ad slogan, “Once you explode, you can’t stop,” which has been shelved ever since. Snack companies are very vulnerable to the charge of encouraging binge eating.

This is Pringles’ third secret: it’s disarmament. It’s hard to be so mad at a brand that’s so irreverent, and there’s always been something ridiculous about that brand. Even its inventor struggled to install it: Procter & Gamble originally tried to classify Pringles as US potato chips, but later tried to avoid British taxes by saying it didn’t contain enough potatoes to qualify as chips (the company failed both times).

Pringles marketing campaigns are often funny, including this year’s Super Bowl ad about a man who has stuck a Pringles tube on his arm for life. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we enjoy it,” Cahillan says. This is partly an acknowledgment of reality – few people take Pringles seriously – but it also helps combat any stigma.

For now, Pringles appears to be stronger than ever, even if the brand has to change more than flavors to satisfy future health regulators. I’ve never really enjoyed eating it, but one editor of mine swears by the Screamin’ Dill Pickle flavor. In moderation, it sounds like innocent fun.

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