Over the course of a year when consumers found themselves stuck at home more than they may have liked, they have also spent more time perusing the pantry for favorite snack options. But as the world begins to reopen, companies in the snack foods industry may need to tune back in to pre-pandemic trends. 

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Shannan Redcay, Utz Brands

According to Shannan Redcay of Utz, since the start of the pandemic, her team has focused primarily on homestyle snacks that help consumers feel connected to the past.  

“We’ve seen a little bit more of a slide into comfort foods, things that are familiar [and] that have positive emotional connection,” says Redcay, the company’s Senior Vice President of Innovation and Value Creation. “[But when] we come out of, or at least start to lessen the COVID grip…we start to return to what’s better for you… That could be plant-based snacking, that could be protein delivery… No artificial colors or flavors, whole foods, vegetables, simple ingredients.”

Last year marked a year of growth for snack maker Utz — a brand best known for its potato chips and pretzels. After 99 years as a family-owned company, the brand went public on the New York Stock exchange in August of 2020. Utz Brands also saw a 24 percent year-over-year increase in sales in the third quarter of 2020. 

Amidst the growth, Redcay says her team is working to bridge pre-COVID healthy trends with the consumer’s more comfort-oriented palate during the pandemic. For example, frying potato chips in avocado or olive oil presents a more health-conscious option that is still “approchable, and tastes great,” she says. 

Portability is another trend to expect post-pandemic in the snacking space. “We want to make sure that we have packages that allow the consumer to have an experience with us wherever they are,” Redcay says. ”So if you think about traditional big bags of snacks, that’s not well-fit for a car. That’s not well-fit for mid-morning snacking at your desk.” 

Redcay’s role spans product innovation, consumer insights, manufacturing, and packaging innovations. The newly created role reports to the company’s Chief Operations Officer and CEO. 

During a recent conversation, Redcay offered a look at how her team approaches innovation. 

Letting Customers In at the Right Time 

When it comes to developing new products, the team at Utz first identifies trends and develops new snacks internally before seeking feedback. However, not every idea requires a consumer taste test. In some cases, Redcay says, her team can determine what flavors and tastes work together.  

“Sometimes, you can taste something and you just have a sense that it’s not going to work because it doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to,” she says. “We’re not going to try to force that water uphill.”

Other new concepts may be sent to stores for consumer sampling or conducted in focus groups. However during the pandemic, Redcay says her team must take extra precautious to keep customers safe, which often takes more time. “What we’re having to do is space out groups and have appropriate distance and appropriate protocols,” she says. ”Like with most things now, there’s extra sanitizing and there’s fewer people.” According to Redcay, feedback on snacks and packaging can also be harvested through social media. 

The team seeks to gather feedback from customers and employees quickly. “How do we keep turning ideas?” Redcay explains of the team’s innovation philosophy. “How do we try not to take so long in the development that we miss the opportunity?” 

Balancing Data and Intuition 

11 Utz 9.5 oz Original Potato Chips

In the snacking space, Redcay says teams have to look through data from multiple sources to determine where to place bets. That includes what items are currently selling and what flavors and ingredients are becoming popular, as well as social media chatter. According to Redcay, her team uses Hootsuite — a social media managment platform — and Meltwater — a software designed to monitor online media — to gather data from different social channels.

However, Redcay recommends that innovators in consumer packaged goods also keep their own experiences as a shopper and their own taste preferences in mind. “If I see three different instances of a turmeric latté just by existing [and going out], I’m probably going to pay attention to turmeric,” she notes. 

“Data can be tough because data tells you what’s already happening,” she says, but it does not necessarily predict what trends will get big and endure. Redcay cites some of the unicorn or rainbow-colored products that once sold well, but eventually fell out of fashion. 

“I think that part of being innovative is balancing your intuition with the data. … Don’t ignore the intuition factor,” Redcay says. “Don’t forget that you yourself are a consumer, and you generally need to pay attention and have a sense of what your consumers are looking for. Data is only a piece of the story.”