You probably remember when Frito Lay’s SunChips brand launched their compostable bag in April 2009 to a surprising reception. The company knew that their 100% compostable bag (that was developed over three years) was loud, but they didn’t think it would lead to the backlash that ensued. SunChips even considered the sound a differentiator and incorporated the louder bag into its Canadian marketing strategy, calling it The New Sound of Green. In the US, there was a note on the bag acknowledging the noise to the tune of “this bag is louder because it is compostable”. As Rocco Papalia, SVP of Advanced Research for PepsiCo revealed at Sustainable Brands ’11, the sound of the bag “seemed like a small price to pay” compared to its benefits. It turned out that it was a large price to pay for customers and it resulted in an 11% decline in US sales over the 18 months since it’s introduction, and a whole lot of noise online and on the SunChips hotline. As a result, SunChips pulled the bag off of shelves. (Interestingly, the company handled the situation a bit differently in Canada, telling anyone who complained about the noise that they would send them free earplugs.
Check out the video below:
The circumstances put the brand in an uncomfortable position: were they to return to the old bag to appease their customers or go back to the drawing board to develop a quieter, compostable alternative? Some customers complained that SunChips cared more about the environment than its customers and that’s certainly not the message the company wanted to convey. At the same time, the company wanted to remain true to its environmental commitment; an abandonment of the compostable version would make the company’s green pledge seem inauthentic. However, doing so would benefit the bottom line since the compostable bags cost three times as much as the ones they replaced.
As you probably know, SunChips set out to make a quieter bag and did so by changing the bag’s construction. The bag, released this spring, sounds like conventional bags, but still feels different. Currently, the bag is only available for the Original Flavor SunChips (the company will test the market response before rolling it out in other flavors). According to Papalia, the market conversion was completed in May and the business is stronger now.
There are claims that the new bag requires higher temperatures to compost and is therefore not as easily compostable as the 1.0 version. Both this issue and the reaction to the noise broach the subject of trade-offs. It is unrealistic to think that sustainability efforts can be overnight successes but in order to achieve incremental victories, there will be sacrifices. In this case, customers wouldn’t sacrifice their auditory experience with snacking to benefit the environment so the result was that SunChips perhaps had to sacrifice the integrity of its bags to pacify customers. Could the company have found a way to keep the louder bags and recover market share? Could it have developed quieter bags with the same compostability? Have they already done so and the critics are simply pouncing?
Papalia acknowledges that the company wasn’t prepared for the reaction they received around the noise and that it inhibited SunChips’ ability to manage the risk. I applaud his honesty and his willingness to share the lessons learned. I wish more companies would follow suit and speak up.
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.