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Lessons in Eco Products: The Sad, Short Life of a SunChips Bag

Frito-Lay's (PEP) decision to pull its biodegradable Sun Chips bags off store shelves because of complaints they were too noisy is more than just a sad metaphor of American consumers too lazy or dumb to put the snack in a bowl. It's an example of how difficult it can be for any company to launch a green product.

In Frito-Lay's case, the snack company totally underestimated the fickleness of the average consumer. Eco product or not, people want convenience and the quiet chips bags that they know.

Fellow BNET blogger Jim Edwards recently impugned Frito Lay for not embracing the in-your-face volume of its new packaging. He pointed to Smart USA, which markets the tiny, but mighty Smart Fortwo car, as a company that turned its two-seater disadvantage into a blessing with a compilation of its own horror movie scenes in which drivers are axed and stabbed by people popping out of the backseat.

But Smart USA understood it two-seater disadvantage, and Frito Lay was clearly unprepared for the it's-too-noisy bag backlash. And that led to an unfortunate fact: sales of the multigrain snack have fallen more than 11 percent since it launched its plant-based bag (excluding Walmart (WAL), which doesn't share its data).

Never mind that Frito Lay spent four years to develop and launch its better bag. Were the testers wearing ear plugs? Another odd move by Frito Lay is its decision to keep the biodegradable packaging for the original flavor of SunChips. Why ditch the packaging for other five flavors and keep the original? The company is either experimenting with whether sales will recover or not, or wants to keep up a minimal commitment to the appearance of "going green."

As the company now turns back to its research labs to develop a quieter eco-bag, it should consider a few things.

  • Don't underestimate the backlash. Especially the second time around. If you're really committed to keeping bags out of landfills develop a bag that consumers will accept. After all, if they hate the product they'll stop buying it (as Frito Lay has found out).
  • Don't ignore the controversy. If a SunChips eco-bag 2.0 ever debuts, the advertising and promotion surrounding the project should embrace the old complaints of the soon-to-be-killed noisy bag.
Frito Lay isn't alone, by the way. Other companies have failed with their green campaigns or eco gadgets. for example, Procter & Gamble's new Cascade line of low-phosphate detergents meets new environmental regulations, but it doesn't clean dishes very well, which is a pretty clear prerequisite for a cleaning agent.

Photo from Flickr user cogdogblog, CC 2.0

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