Weird Stuff

I’m in the snacks aisle of the Asian grocery in Melbourne Central. I love Asian groceries — the high-end Japanese ones, like the one on Smith Street, the Grand Central Station super-busy ones, like Great Eastern on Russell Street in Chinatown, even the dodgy dystopian car park vibe ones, like the no-name one on Little Bourke Street near Swanston. There’s inevitably stuff that reminds me of my home country. Rollercoaster chips, keropok, prawn crackers, strange brightly coloured jellies in plastic cartons, rabbit-branded milk sweets, those sweet red disc things, normal pocky, weird pocky… a well-stocked Asian grocery is a dimension-bending delight of a maximum amount of products stuffed into a minimum amount of increasingly inaccessible space. I’m not normally here on a weekday night though, save to maybe grab a drink on the go.

The break in the routine’s because of an escalating potato chips situation in the agency, an increasingly high stakes “Guess what flavour this is?” game in the creative department that’s only been played out of the chips available in the nearby convenience store. The weirdest flavour that’s sold in that store is Smith’s “Chinese Peking Duck”, which, in our opinion, tastes like overdone beef left out in the sun too long. (The worst flavour in the store is the Black Truffle, which just tastes like ash and chemical despair). “For really weird flavours,” I told my colleagues, “there’s really no beating an Asian grocery.” That’s why I’m here, picking out flavours off the shelf that I know I’m going to regret eating later.

Product branding on a shelf as densely crowded as an Asian grocery snacks shelf is a competitive struggle against futility. Cheese flavour? Please, people are more likely to just hop over to the Coles next door and grab some Doritos. Salt and vinegar chips? Vinegar’s a bit of a weird flavour to me when dumplings aren’t involved. Prawn? There’d be at least ten brands with prawn flavoured stuff, some of which are old brands that people grew up with and are most likely to buy (like Calbee). Still, there are ways to stand out among the noise, and to the credit of some Asian snacks companies, they don’t so much tackle the problem head-on as storm the beachhead with an all-guns-blazing assault on the senses.

Voted Off the Island:

  • Yogurt Potato Chips and Cola Potato Chips, both made in Korea. Yogurt is actually a mistranslation — it’s clearly a Yakult-flavoured potato chips, less yogurt as a popular probiotic digestive drink in Southeast / East Asia which doesn’t actually work. We still drink it though.
  • Pizza-flavoured potato chips. There were actually a few versions of this, I just chose the one with the black branding.

Honourable Mentions:

  • Indomee flavoured potato chips. These are really weirdly salty. I bought them once, never again.
  • Honey potato chips. Why.
  • Various potato chip flavours whose labels I could not actually make out and so couldn’t risk poisoning the office with.

Is There Actually A Moral To This Story?

Friday morning. There’s a yell from the kitchen as someone unsuspecting tries the yogurt chips. I laugh at my desk, having tried one each of the flavours earlier. I had to purge the taste by eating a few fresh mandarins and drinking copious amounts of tea. “This is the worst chip I’ve ever eaten,” the art director declares, awed. “I could kind of see the logic behind a yogurt chip if it was Greek yogurt, but this is weirdly sweet and… just wrong.” The Cola chips had a similar response — weirdly sweet, with powdered Cola on top. “I would never have ever thought of a cola chip.” “This is just weird.” The pizza flavour was aggressively cheesy in a chalky way. Left to languish on the kitchen table, the chips prove to be an extended trap for the afternoon.

The thing is, I bought them precisely because they stood out on the shelf. Not just through sheer weirdness, but look at the simplicity of the Yogurt and Cola packaging. In a sea of chips packaging stamped with multiple fonts and weird photography contrasted with stark colours and retro outlined typography, the yogurt and cola stuff just stood out. That, and they were weird as hell. There are tasting / reax videos on YouTube. I first heard of the yogurt chips through a friend, who’d seen it on another friend’s social media. Good on them, I thought. If you want to go weird, go full weird. Stand out from the noise. And modern, (fairly) minimal design stands out on a crowded shelf when the competition’s been mired in the 90s and never left.

On further research, it turns out that yogurt flavour, strange as it is to us, is cultural. Pringles runs a yakult/yogurt flavour in South Korea. Yogurt-and-herb (non-yakult) flavours are popular in the Middle East, and large brands like Lays run those flavours. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve had yakult-flavoured baijiu at the Food and Wine Show after all, a really strong Chinese hard liquor. And Pringles also does run a cola flavour in — yes — South Korea. You might think that’s strange, but I think it’s weird that one of the most popular chips flavours in the UK is shrimp cocktail. That’s a weird 60s dish that I didn’t even think existed save in old dramas. It’s the favourite chip flavour of the British digital strategist in the agency, and she doesn’t even eat prawn or shrimp.

If your brand’s going international, it stands to reason that you should cater to the local market. Some brands like Kit-kat take this to extremes — Kit-kat in Japan has flavours that are Japan-only, and are often as weird as you can imagine. There’s been an attempt to run with this in other countries: there’s a Kit-kat shop in Melbourne Central that runs a lamington flavour, for example, with premium chocolate versions attempting to appeal to the hipster in many Melburnians. Successful? We’re not so sure. Nice packaging though.

The Moral Of This Story:

  • Cater your product to the local market.
  • One person’s weird chip flavour might be massively popular to others.
  • Stand out on the shelf by being different.
  • Great product design works.

Have a snacks brand? Want to have a chat? Let’s talk.

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