One Snacker at a Time: How Popchips Grew Without Losing Its Character

Last Updated Jan 4, 2011 1:28 PM EST

By Caitlin Elsaesser
Keith Belling's mantra for popchips is "one snacker at a time," and he means it. The co-founder and CEO personally answers every email that comes into the company's general "snackers" email address.

"My focus has always been on connecting with consumers in a meaningful way," says Belling. Popchips started in 2007 in California, building its brand through grassroots marketing. But when he decided he wanted to expand nationally, he knew it would be a challenge to maintain the brand's quirky character while scaling the business.

So, Belling focused on influencer marketing -- a strategy that targets specific key individuals or tastemakers who have influence in their marketplace, in the hopes that they would embrace the brand and share it with their network of friends. Even though popchips expanded into a market on the other side of the country, influencer marketing allowed it to continue reaching new customers through personal connections.

The strategy has worked: popchips' 2009 revenues reached $19 million -- triple the previous year's total.

An authentic consumer connection
When Belling founded popchips with Patrick Turpin, he knew he needed to get new consumers to discover the product in a meaningful way. Popchips is a tasty, lower-fat snack, something Belling knew consumers are often skeptical about.

"Because of people's doubts about healthier snacking options, we are all about giving them a chance to try it -- on us," Belling said. "Once consumers try popchips, most people really like it and become fans."

The grassroots strategy worked well while popchips was building its brand in California -- Belling was able to work closely with his team locally and take a hands on-approach to directing the brand's personalized marketing strategy. The company established its personality both through careful marketing -- it developed catchy, fun phrases like "snackers do it between meals" and "love without the handles" -- and by allowing new consumers to "get popped" by sending out personalized sample boxes of the product.

Belling worried the "one snacker at a time" philosophy would get lost as he expanded into new markets. He dealt with these concerns with an obsession to detail, laying out what he calls "hyper-detailed action plans" that approached the challenge strategically and tactically. He and his partner, Pat also created what the company calls "the Principles of Pop," an internal guide that reminded the team of popchips' approach. They also held monthly all-hands calls to share lessons-learned and keep the expanding staff engaged.

Influencer marketing
Popchips' first market outside of California was Manhattan. Rather than buying a list of contacts for their campaign, Belling hired the most connected New York public relations executive he knew -- influencer marketing in action. She worked with the company to send out more than a thousand special care packages to friends and acquaintances who were key influencers -- a process the company calls "getting popped." Recipients could then choose three of their "favorite snackers," as Belling put it, to "pop it forward," and send their own package with a note that they had sent them the gift. Ultimately, more than 2,000 of these personalized packages went out.

The team also created authentic connections with businesses in Manhattan, much as they'd done in California. The team orchestrated special "snack breaks" for area companies, but they didn't just drop the product off at the door and let the target company take care of the rest. Instead, the local popchips field marketing team set up the product for specific meetings or lunch breaks, or in break rooms. They also always made sure they had a "friend" at the company who could champion the product to their co-workers.

The company's field marketing team also worked to "get popchips at all the right events," says Belling. That included Mercedes Benz fashion week, the Susan G. Komen races, the Bridgehampton polo season and the Super Saturday, a benefit in the Hamptons.

The Principles of Pop combined with the monthly all-hands gatherings helped allow Belling to give his team autonomy while knowing that their collective efforts would help maintain popchip's company culture.

Building the buzz
The team implemented all these strategies quickly, getting them in place within a month and a half, with the goal of creating buzz around the product as part of its launch in the new market. It worked.

"I started getting emails from customers saying that popchips seemed to have appeared from nowhere," says Belling. In the first six months in New York, the company met its local sales goals for the year. Revenues in 2009 were $19 million; in 2010 the company is on track to bring in more than $40 million, buoyed by an expansion to 12 new markets following the same strategy they took in Manhattan.

However, the personal approach to marketing has not always been easy. After a newspaper article proclaimed that Belling answered every company email personally, he woke up to more than 400 emails. He answered almost all of them within 36 hours, but it wasn't easy -- he had to clear his weekend and stay up into the wee hours to respond to the flood.

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