Business

‘Crab’ chips, fruity Oreos? Big hits abroad

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Caviar-flavored potato chips are a favorite among snacking Muscovites and helped PepsiCo increase market share.

NEW YORK - Russians prefer their Lay’s potato chips dusted in caviar and crab flavors. The Chinese like Oreos stuffed with mango and orange cream.

Americans might get squeamish at the thought of their favorite snacks being tweaked. But what works in the United States doesn’t always work elsewhere.

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Food makers long have tinkered with their products to appeal to regional tastes, but getting the recipe just right is becoming more important than ever.

Says Lee Linthicum, a market researcher: “It can’t be some generic mix of spices that might fool an American.’’

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That’s partly because people in developing nations such as China and India are gaining more of an appetite for American-style “on-the-go’’ foods as they work longer hours and have less time to cook. But it’s mostly because snack makers are looking for growth in other parts of the world as sales slow at home.

The challenge for snack makers is that people in other countries have different tastes. Consider the Oreo, which Kraft Food Inc. introduced in China in 1996. Sales of the vanilla cream-filled chocolate cookie sandwich were respectable, but the Chinese didn’t completely take to it.

So Kraft decided to tweak the Oreo. But executives of the Illinois company knew they had to proceed with caution.

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“When you have a brand that’s 100 years old, you don’t mess with the recipe thoughtlessly,’’ says Lorna Davis, head of the biscuit and cookies unit.

In 2006, Kraft began offering the Oreo as a wafer, a popular cookie throughout Asia. It is made up of cream sandwiched between crispy wafers. The plan was to help familiarize more Chinese customers with the brand. Three years later, the company decided to go a step further.

Kraft worked with a panel of consumer taste experts from around the world to identify the characteristics of the Oreo - including color, crunchiness, bitterness - that were likely to appeal to Chinese tastes. Executives learned the Chinese don’t like their treats as big or as sweet as Americans do. So the company rejiggered the recipe.

To test it, hundreds of Chinese consumers tasted the new Oreo. It was a hit.

“It made us realize the smallest of details make a big difference,’’ Davis says.

But the company wasn’t finished. After noticing sales of Oreos were lagging in China during the summer, Kraft added a green tea ice cream flavor. The version sold well, and a year later, Kraft rolled out Oreos in flavors that are popular in Asians desserts - raspberry-and-blueberry and mango-and-orange.

The result? Over the past five years, Kraft said sales have grown an average of 60 percent a year. The Oreo now is the top-selling cookie in China.

For the first time last year, revenue from PepsiCo.’s international snacks division surpassed revenue in North America. To achieve that, PepsiCo has had to adjust its recipes.

In 2005, it began a quest to make its Lay’s potato chips more appealing in Russia. It wasn’t easy.

“Potato chips were not big in the Communist time, so it’s something we’re gradually building,’’ says Marc Schroeder, who heads PepsiCo’s food division in Russia.

Employees traveled around the country to talk about what people eat. Russia has nine time zones, with eating habits that vary by region.

In the eastern part of the country, PepsiCo found that fish is a big part of the diet. So it introduced crab chips in 2006. It’s now the third most popular flavor in the country. A red caviar flavor does best in Moscow. Pickled cucumber was introduced last year.

Sales of Lay’s have more than doubled in the past five years. As for the classic Lay’s - an American favorite - Russians still aren’t biting.

“They find it a very boring flavor,’’ Schroeder said.

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