When three former Nestle USA executives formed ASAP Food Products in 2001, they were looking to shake up an established category that hadn’t seen innovation in a number of years. And their efforts opened up a new snack aisle opportunity for licensors to boot.
‘We took a look at the microwave popcorn category, which is now 23 years old,’ says ASAP VP of marketing Jennifer Deutsch. ‘There has been no innovation since the product was invented, other than flavor proliferation. So what we decided to do was ask people, ‘If you could create the perfect microwave popcorn, what would you do?” Resoundingly, people answered that they would make it more fun, make it healthier and make it taste better.
The first order of business was to create a bag with jazzier graphics that also incorporated several features that moms asked for in focus group testing. ‘There are mothers who won’t let their kids make microwave popcorn because of [the danger associated with escaping steam],’ says Deutsch. So in addition to creating a unique new bag shape (rounded instead of rectangular), ASAP lined the inside of the bag with a release coating designed to reduce steam.
And whereas previous licensing activity in the microwave popcorn category consisted mainly of on-pack promotions, ASAP focused on in-pack innovation, partnering with Warner Bros. Consumer Products to produce licensed microwave popcorn featuring Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, The Powerpuff Girls and Taz in addition to its own generic themes like sports and holidays. Why Warner Bros.? ‘We want our brand to be positioned as a fun, all-family product that’s wholesome and nutritious,’ says Deutsch. ‘When I say wholesome, I mean that the product, its positioning and our partners should be wholesome. And with the four characters combined, we felt we had a very broad reach.’
The Warner Bros. license gave ASAP the fun quotient it was after, but the company also wanted to make the bag user-friendly and the product itself healthier. The answer to these challenges came in the form of a base at the bottom of the bag (so that it stands up once popped, eliminating spills and the need for bowls), and the introduction of sunflower oil, a cleaner oil with half the saturated fat of the traditional partially-hydrogenated soybean oil.
Following an intense round of final focus group testing, ASAP launched the initial line (featuring Bugs Bunny, The Powerpuff Girls, Scooby-Doo and Tweety) last fall and introduced a Taz SKU this past April. A Looney Tunes: Back in Action SKU, based on the November-launching Warner Bros. film, is due out in September.
‘The food and beverage category in general is a great brand extension – it gets us in front of so many more consumers beyond general merchandise,’ says Dave Hedrick, VP of promotional marketing at Warner Bros. Consumer Products. ‘[Microwave popcorn] is a new category for us, and it gets us into new aisles at the grocery store.’
The venture also took ASAP into some unique distribution channels: In addition to being sold at outlets like Kroger, Food Lion, Meijer and Tops, the product was also stocked at select Toys ‘R’ Us locations. And a deal with American Greetings for a Birthday Bag (complete with a birthday card and a US$1 gift certificate for the movies) brought ASAP into the social expressions aisle of grocery and drug stores.
The company is also producing a Cat in the Hat bag to coincide with Universal’s holiday 2003 theatrical release, with product on shelves a few months ahead of the film in August. And ASAP recently signed a deal with Capcom for a Mega Man SKU in honor of the video game icon’s 15th anniversary, with product slated to hit shelves in September.
Licensing remains a key element of ASAP’s business strategy. ‘What we heard in focus groups is that moms found it difficult to get their kids to switch from sugary snacks to popcorn,’ says Deutsch. ‘When we showed moms our product, they felt that it would be an easier sell to kids because of the graphics.’ The popcorn manufacturer is currently exploring additional licensing deals and will consider preschool and teen properties.
Distributors from Canada, Mexico and Europe have approached ASAP to expand the product’s reach, and the company is looking into new food product concepts for 2004 and beyond.