Look out, supermarket sample lady with your cut-in-half meatballs pierced with toothpicks. You might be replaced by synthetic dissolving flavor strips.
Similar to the breath strips now ubiquitous in boardrooms and before first dates, the calorie-free strips are set to pop up by the end of the year in a wide range of channels -- from magazine ads promoting the next exotic liquor taste sensation to direct-mail promotions for new toothpaste flavors.
The new take on sensory branding is being brought to market by First Flavor, based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. It was launched in 2005 after Adnan Aziz -- then a bioengineering major at the University of Pennsylvania and now co-founder of First Flavor -- was watching "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and pondered the question: If wallpaper can taste like strawberries or bananas, why can't anything?
"We want to empower the consumer, so when they walk down the aisle and see a flavor for mango tropical fusion, they don't have to wonder what it tastes like," said Jay Minkoff, president-CEO of First Flavor.
Mr. Minkoff declined to name clients but said First Flavor is already working with nearly a dozen different brands looking to launch trials in the third and fourth quarters. He said partners include a "toothpaste product from a nationally respected brand" as well as an "over-the-counter smoking-cessation product" and a "number of distilled-spirit manufacturers." It will be at least another 12 months before any brand will be able launch a national campaign using the strips, he said. (The company is private and doesn't break out sales -- though there are none so far.)
Good for liquor marketers
As with any new marketing tool, certain product categories look to be better fits for First Flavor. The biggest target is alcoholic beverages, especially considering fewer than 10 states allow sampling of alcoholic beverages in stores. With the proliferation of new products and flavors in liquors, not to mention a staggering number of product extensions, making sure a consumer likes that $20 flavored vodka is an obvious benefit toward moving the sales needle.
Although not cheap, the taste strips are far less expensive than live sampling, which Mr. Minkoff said can cost anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per 1,000 people, mainly because of label costs and training. First Flavor's estimated cost is 7 cents to 12 cents per strip, including pharmaceutical-grade packaging that is tamper-resistant.
"We are really spending on a quality packaging in order to make sure consumers are confident of the safety of ingesting one of our strips," Mr. Minkoff said.
Granted, safety and health concerns don't seem to stop hungry shoppers from digging into tortilla-chip samples to get bits and scraps during flu season. But beyond the safety and perception challenges, logistics and execution also could be hurdles, especially considering the endemic problems of consistency with in-store marketing displays.
Help from display vets
First Flavor has teamed with Alliance Display, a division of Rock-Tenn, one of the largest in-store display and promotion manufacturers, to handle in-store displays of First Flavor strips.
Dean Metter, VP-business development and retail at Alliance, said he sees enormous potential for the strips, pointing out that 66% of all purchases are impulse buys.
"Getting a shopper to stop in the store and become a buyer is the trick. This sensory in-store effort can make a big difference, and compared to 'Mabel and her table,' it's not very expensive," he said.
Leonard Lodish, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an investor in First Flavor, said the strips could even replace the sample lady. "If you have a more efficient way of getting people to try products, that leads to repeat and trial that could be really big," he said.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the company behind the taste strips. The name of the company is First Flavor, not Flavorfresh, as originally reported.