Crisps or Chips: the Atlantic Question, or, Mythological Potatoes

It is hard to imagine a company selling a product and making no effort to distinguish itself from its rivals. This is true even for products like electricity where the quality doesn’t vary, and in those cases it is the brand rather than the product which bears the weight of marketability. While a cleaning product can claim to make whites whiter, or a parcel service can offer next-day-delivery, an electricity provider cannot promise to supply better electricity than any of its competitors. In lieu of quality product it must offer quality service, better customer support, lower prices or perhaps more environmentally-sound sources.

Similarly, there are products which can vary in quality, but only by very tiny margins. Consider crisps, or ‘potato chips’ as they are sometimes called; there are many competing brands vying for a stake in a lucrative market where costs are low and mark-up is high. The product itself consists of thin potato slices either baked or fried in a savoury flavouring, often high in salt but also embracing meaty ‘umami’ flavours. Every ingredient and aspect of production is cheap, a standard bag of crisps containing less than one potato, and selling, in the UK, for around seventy pence.

The reason then for any manufacturer with a ready supply of potatoes to enter this market is clear, but how to differentiate one crisp brand from another when there is so little room for manoeuvre in production? Well-established brands often introduce new flavours, usually with some sense of novelty humour about them, but these seldom last long, and are more likely an exercise in brand awareness than research and development. Other standard variations in the formula include the thickness of the crisps themselves or the way the potato is sliced, i.e. ‘ridge’ or ‘crinkle’ cut, but it’s probably fair to say that the mould has been cast for crisps.

made to last?

made to last?

There is a degree of stratification with some brands, ranging from extremely cheap crisps which are perceived to be low quality, to luxury crisps. This kind of stratification exists to a greater degree with bread, another product that is cheap to produce, and most supermarkets offer a range starting from a very cheap form of bleach-white, dough-textured bread that costs a fraction of the price of the loaves that contain seeds or use specialist dough. This range of quality has to exist in the market, and probably owes less to the actual cost or difficulty of production than to the presence of consumers who will buy the cheapest available product regardless. Which is to say, generally, cheap products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend less; expensive products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend more; everything else is a measure of the consumer’s ability to discern value.

Crisps however, due to the overwhelming cheapness of production and the status as a ‘snack’ rather than a ‘food’, cannot support quite the same complexity of stratification. Bread constitutes a comparatively substantial part of the average diet, and its quality and price can be linked to the relative nutritional value of the ingredients, while crisps are non-essential, often listed with chocolate and carbonated drinks as items the conscientious parent may want to keep out of their child’s lunchbox.

So, as with electricity, it falls to brand differentiation to enable companies to claim a stake in the market. There is a growing trend to increase the caché of a given flavours supposed ingredients, exemplified by Walker’s decision in 2006 to rebrand its ‘Beef and Onion’ crisps as ‘Steak and Onion’ crisps, without significantly altering the recipe. More recently Walkers have introduced a new range, ‘Market Deli’, that deviates from their traditional product in several ways pertaining to presentation, and few pertaining to product. They use low pastel colours in the packaging instead of the usual garish palette of a Walkers crisp packets, and a handwritten font to denote craftsmanship. Their claim to Mediterranean ingredients, which they stress by unnecessarily translating them into Italian- even though this product isn’t available in Italy- suggests time and effort went into sourcing them. They even attempt to reinforce the reality of these ingredients with a photograph and a drawing of what those ingredients might look like.

pictured: authenticity

pictured: authenticity

The new name also cries out to be seen as something separate from other Walkers offerings, the marketing executives having chosen two words- Market and Deli- which, when connected to food, signify wholesomeness, awareness of quality and perhaps a sort of middle class fussiness. Delis in the UK are places to buy food if you enjoy greater than average free time and income, the benefits being a certain exoticness of produce, and a higher quality than the supermarkets. Markets meanwhile generally denote locality in their produce, and value for money, which may be why the two titles Walkers have picked sit together so uneasily. Somewhere along the design process it seems that they have recognised this themselves, and acknowledged it by putting the word ‘Market’ in a sensible, erstwhile, sans-serif font, while the word ‘Deli’ is a boisterous, looping handwritten scrawl.

Tension between locality and exoticness may even be a central issue to the Walkers company, which, though having started in Britain in the 1940’s, and carrying many British associations, became a part of the American Frito-Lay brand in 1989. It may be as a result then that this product, though likely to be described as a bag of ‘crisps’ by the consumer who will purchase it, has become a bag of ‘potato chips’ according to its own packaging. Perhaps this is a part of the advertising of Market Deli as a wholesome and continental treat, rather than a working man’s pub snack or something for a child’s lunchbox, an attempt to boost potato chips into the realm of ‘proper food’, to differentiate between potato chips and crisps, two separate categories of food and not-food. This of course is likely to fail, partly because there is no difference between the two categories, but also because there already exists in the UK a potato based foodstuff called chips, that which an American would call fries.

chips or fries? Never Surrender

chips or fries? Never Surrender

For Walkers to successfully manoeuvre Britons into calling ‘crisps’ ‘chips’, they would also have to get Britons to call ‘chips’ ‘fries’, a move that seems highly unlikely to occur.Then again, the American Kettle Chips are well established in the UK and only ever refer to themselves as chips in their marketing. Open a bag and you may well offer someone a kettle chip, but only as long as the association with the brand is present- pour them into a bowl, and they turn into just crisps. Tyrell’s insist that they are crisps, and probably consider it a matter of national pride, keen as they are to stress their Englishness. Lesser known brand ‘Burts’ are not as bold, choosing Britishness over contentious Englishness, despite their Devonshire mailing address; but have perversely decided that they make ‘potato chips’ too.

It’s unclear why Walkers have chosen to include their own branding on the front of a package that is clearly trying to distance itself from their other products. The Walkers logo, another font in a dizzy mess of contrary fonts, is reminiscent of the Pepsi logo, PepsiCo being the owner of Frito-Lay. This is another message, one of international brands and giant corporate interests, that strongly conflicts with the connotations of both Markets and Delis, those bastions of small independent businesses. It would make more sense for Walkers to shy away from their involvement in Market Deli as much as is possible, in the same way that the coca-cola corporation is less than upfront about its involvement in certain other soft drinks that might be damaged by the association.

he-hem

he-hem

But instead Walkers have chosen to highlight the connection, in a move that does at least as much to expose the farce of this rebrand as the silly name, or the false continental association; as any well-travelled consumer will be aware, crisps are not as popular in other parts of Europe, and Walkers doesn’t operate outside the UK.

So, are Walkers participating in a general effort to help crisps shift their emphasis from being a potato conduit for salty or meaty flavours, to becoming like meals in themselves? Potato chips with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena does sound a lot like a starter in an Italian restaurant. Consider Tyrell’s, Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar. Both Salt and Vinegar are cheap, abundant commodities, and require qualifiers in order to carry any value. Cider vinegar is one option, and we’ve seen balsamic vinegar, but there’s also the more homely malt vinegar for the down-to-earth, football supporting McCoys. Another Market Deli flavour is Potato Chips with Flame Grilled Spanish Chorizo with Roasted Onions, which is the full restaurant-ready package; You have ingredients, Potato, Onion and Chorizo, literally forming meat and two veg; you have the place of origin, Spain; and you have methods of preparation, roasting and flame grilling.

spot the difference

pictured: not crisps

Kettle Chips are more vague about their method of preparation, telling me that they are hand cooked by chefs, which adds no obvious benefit to the experience of eating them but does act as a qualifier for the humble potato in the same manner that the words ‘Sea’ and ‘Cider’ improve ‘salt’ and ‘vinegar’. Tyrell’s are not only hand-cooked but include a serving suggestion, “perfect with a bit of battered cod”, although it’s unclear if we are supposed to take this seriously. On the back of my packet of balsamic vinegar crisps, I find tasting notes, telling me that the slices of potato are delicious, cut thicker and cooked longer, with the delicate sweetness of Aceto Balsamico di Modena for a rich, velvety and smooth flavour. It seems here that Walkers are drawing less on the vocabulary of food and have now started to borrow from that other great middle class signifier, wine. There is in fact an entire snack range produced by the company ‘Tayto’ called ‘Velvet Crunch’, erroneous juxtapositions be damned. Why potato products should benefit from being thought of as velvety or smooth, the prime marketing adjectives of toilet paper, is a mystery; how dried potato slices could achieve this is mysterious as well, although it does say on my packet of Market Deli, that they need to be tasted to be believed. They are not wrong.