A Taste for the Ridiculous – How Far Will New Product Development Go?

If you happened to tune in to Food Network’s Chopped, Episode 13 of Season 54, you would have seen what for that show is a typical sight: a trio of flop sweat chefs competing to make a palatable main course from elk tenderloin, Turkish Delight, broccoli rabe, and green bean ice pops—all in the space of thirty minutes.

Sound bizarre? Well, only if you haven’t watched the show or, in the aggregate, what’s going on in food product development these days. Food brands large and small are engaging in new product mash-ups at an ever-increasing rate, confirming that strange bedfellows are probably the new normal. Kansas State University reports that around 15,000 new food products are introduced annually, with an average development time of two years. In 2022 alone, Kraft spent approximately $127 million on product research and development. However, the grim reality is that the failure rate of these new products is as high as 90%. Sounds a bit like the restaurant industry, where the National Restaurant Association notes that 80% of all restaurants fail within five years of opening.

Personally, I think the madness stared long before Chopped first aired in 2009. Turn your clocks back to 1983 and a memorable campaign created for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups by Ogilvy and Mather. In one commercial, a peppy young man and equally peppy young lady are both walking toward each other down a city sidewalk. The young man is eating a chocolate bar, the young lady a jar of peanut butter. (Funny how we never stop to ask, “Who eats a jar of peanut butter walking down the street?!”) Anyway, the two collide and the young man’s chocolate winds up in the young lady’s peanut butter. “You put peanut butter in my chocolate!” the gal cries in a shrill voice. The gentleman, equally peeved, counters with, “You got peanut butter on my chocolate!” But when they taste the combination, something magical happens. It tastes good! Today, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is the third largest candy brand in the U.S., proving that a lot of other people think that combination tastes good too.

For many of these new food brand mash-ups, however, it isn’t exclusively about taste. Other factors are in play. First, many food brands are always on the prowl, seeking to make a good match for themselves with other brands that align with their culture. It’s like the League, that new online dating service for those seeking a mate with a similar commitment to upward mobility. But the other—and maybe bigger—reason is that these brands need to stay culturally relevant. And to stay culturally relevant, they have to create a buzz in the marketplace. If your brand’s name isn’t on everybody’s lips, you’re not gonna move the needle. It’s all about the hype.

To whet your appetite, I’m singling out several of these products that demonstrate just how far flung things have gotten. Van Leeuwen, an ice cream company that began with a few food trucks in New York City and some offbeat flavors mated with food giant Kraft to produce Van Leuween’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese-Flavored Ice Cream. Photos of the product demonstrate that they at least got the color right. And I don’t doubt that this feat got both Van Leuween and Kraft some buzz. But for most of us, macaroni and cheese—and especially Kraft Macaroni and Cheese—is no laughing matter. It’s the sacred stuff we grew up on. Out of respect, it should have been placed on a high shelf, out of reach of enterprising new product developers. Not surprisingly, though Van Leuween’s brought the product back briefly in 2023, it appears to be gone from shelves, along with all the associated R & D dollars.

Then there’s the case of Arby’s Vodka. Yes, you heard me right. The fast food chain famous for thinly-shaved beef sandwiches and Jamoca shakes took a dip in the vodka pool, marketing two flavors: Curly Fry and Crinkle Fry. At market, these vodkas retailed for $60 a bottle. Okay, I know, there are vodkas in myriad flavors, but french fry?! Again, like the girl on the sidewalk with the jar of peanut butter, nobody asks the obvious question, “Do people want their vodka to taste like french fries?” Apparently not, or at least not in great enough numbers. I searched on both Google Shopping and Drizly, a popular online liquor store and could not find a single bottle for sale. Of course nobody asks me until it’s too late, but I could have made have made Arby’s Vodka successful with my own brand mashup: Arby’s Curly Fry-Flavored Vodka with a shot of Heinz ketchup as a chaser.

You know how I always save the best for last? Here it is: Hostess Twinkies Breakfast Cereal. The copy on the back of the box appropriately sums up the selling proposition here: “The snack cake golden child is now a cereal!” Surely this product would have been a hit in a country where the average adult, teenager and child consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Not so. Like the previous two, Hostess Twinkies Breakfast Cereal was an apparent miss.

After a diligent search, I thought I had finally located a box for sale on Ebay. However, it turned out to be just that—only the box, no contents, selling for $11.99. The box was in like-new condition. Still, I passed.

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