If men are from Mars and women from Venus, then Christina Menendez, Pam Forbus and Christine Kalvenes have just completed a galactic journey in potato-chip marketing.
After digging into the male psyche with what they called "bro research," the Frito-Lay execs led an overhaul of the once-family-targeted Ruffles brand into a chip for millennial men with testosterone-fueled packaging, line extensions and campaigns. The three-year effort culminated a few weeks ago with a guy named "Ruff McThickridge," a Ron-Burgundy-meets-Burt Reynolds-meets-Clint Eastwood character starring in a campaign that parodies 1970s action movies.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that men -- not women -- are better suited to lead a rebranding project that leans so heavily on male insights. But this trio insists their gender was an advantage. "The closer you are to something, the more you tend to overlook the "aha' [moments] because they are so familiar to you," said Ms. Kalvenes, VP-innovation for PepsiCo-owned Frito-Lay, noting that they gained insights because "we weren't men."
"Clearly we're not the target, and so there was no bias placed on anything because you absolutely were not this person," said Ms. Menendez, senior director for brands including Tostitos and Ruffles.
The project, which started in 2010, was spurred by a growing concern that Frito-Lay's chip brands, including Lay's, Lay's Wavy and Ruffles, were marketed too similarly. For instance, Ruffles and Lay's Wavy were both ridged chips positioned generally for dipping. There was an opportunity to improve sales with discrete marketing efforts that highlighted brands' unique attributes, Ms. Menendez said. "Through a lot of analysis and a lot of data-digging we found that Ruffles overindexed with males."
The effort began where most male wisdom can be found: the corner bar. Researchers were dispatched to watering holes across the country, where they interviewed groups of men to deconstruct the "bro code," said Ms. Forbus, VP-strategic insights for Frito-Lay North America. They also had men fill out online surveys because guys "don't share everything in a group setting," she said. Finally, they fit their subjects with video-camera headgear while they shopped.
"The more we dug into it, we realized that Lay's [Wavy] is light and airy and melts on your tongue, which appeals to women," said Ms. Kalvenes. But the group found that Ruffles, with its thick ridges, is filling and offers a harder bite that appeals to men.
Those insights led to the Ruffles Ultimate line extension, which launched last year and features ridges twice the size and depth of original Ruffles. The research also revealed that as men begin their night, they want foods that are hearty enough to "absorb the alcohol" but not "something too heavy that is not going to let them catch their buzz," Ms. Menendez said. Thus another line extension: Ruffles Max, which are not as thick as Ultimate but whose flavors are inspired by "real food guys love," like beer-battered onion rings.
The Ruffles brand also launched meatier dips, such as barbecue with pieces of beef, which just hit stores. At the same time, Frito-Lay repositioned Lay's Wavy for women with a package redesign featuring vibrant colors. Lay's Wavy will also come in female-friendly varieties such as roasted garlic and sea salt, which aim to combine familiar flavors with a sophisticated twist for women who want to "relax and enjoy" snacking.
The research even led to changes in Frito-Lay's distribution strategy. The women found that when guys get together, everyone tends to bring their own food and they aren't necessarily looking to share it, Ms. Forbus said. And unlike women, men don't like to do a lot of social planning. So Ruffles put more emphasis on impulse purchases at convenience stores. Before 2010, 81% of Ruffles sales were in big bags at grocery and mass retailers, with 19% in smaller bags at convenience stores. Today the mix is 75% big bags and 25% smaller bags.
So far, results are mixed. In 2012, U.S. sales jumped 4% in 2012 to more than $1 billion, according to Euromonitor International. But in the 52 weeks ending April 21, Ruffles sales fell 5.5% but retained its No. 2 ranking with 10.4% share, putting it behind Lay's and ahead of Pringles, according to IRI. Ruffles Ultimate, which IRI tracks separately from core Ruffles offerings, reached $43 million in sales in the period, giving it 0.65% share of the chip category.
The brand team is hoping for a boost as it begins to support the packaging and product changes with more advertising. "We had to do a slow, methodical approach in talking to men because the base of our business was very much grounded in all-family," Ms. Menendez said. The ad transition started last year with a spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners featuring guys playing poker. Last month saw the debut of the "Ruff McThickridge" campaign, which includes TV, digital and cinema ads.
"Things are about to get Ruff," Mr. McThickridge cracks in the first ad, in which he competes in "the world's deadliest race," alongside sidekick Bo Dato and the sexy Mora Crunchy. And for the women who began reimagining Ruffles three years ago, there is no turning back now. They have traveled too far.