About 5 years ago CreativeRHINO went brick & mortar and settled down in Wichita, KS. A far cry from the Adirondacks of Upstate New York. Since then we have been consulting on projects, helping launch brands, launching organizations, making commercials, and being the creative rhinos we’re known to be. While there are days we miss the summer of 2009 when we severed all ties from an address and “took the show on the road,” there are liberties to the lifestyle that can be achieved in places like Wichita where creativity, entrepreneurship, and artistic exploration thrive on the foundation of affordable lifestyle and an engaged community. Wichita has been home to many international brands such as Pizza Hut, Rent-A-Center, and Coleman to name a few…all amazing brands, that are no longer here. This past month we got to watch one of Wichita’s past brands step up and hit it out of the park, and it is a lesson in Marketing/Branding 101 that we want to share with you.
As silly as it may sound, I (Ryan W. Gates) love Lay’s Salt & Vinegar Chips and will go out of my way to buy them and store them. So it was almost detrimental to my happiness when I moved to Wichita with CreativeRHINO to find out there were no Lay’s Salt & Vinegar Chips in the state’s largest city. I searched every grocer, every convenience store, and asked around…but alas…only Pringles. So I switched brands. I started eating tons of Pringles Salt & Vinegar Chips. That was how I went from being a Lay’s Brand Shopper to a Pringles Brand Shopper. Until this past month when Lay’s won me back.
Fed up with the situation I wrote letters to my grocer, to my convenience store, to Walmart, to Target, to anyone that might carry chips…and of course I wrote to Lay’s as well. I wrote an old-fashioned letter to Lay’s (no online complaint form) and filled the letter with as many chip puns, jokes, and hilariously over-the-top words as possible in hopes that it would make someone laugh…and thus make someone read it…and thus pass it on…and elicit a response of some sort (hopefully for the positive). It went like this:
To Whom It May Concern at FRITO-LAY NORTH AMERICA, INC.,
When I first moved back home to Wichita, Kansas five years ago I was convinced that your company had discontinuedLAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips due to the fact that I was unable to find them in any grocer or retailer throughout the Wichita area: A sad proposition. Upon traveling to Kansas City I was delighted to find the beloved chips on the shelves of a grocery store there and ceremoniously purchased what can only be referred to as “a boat-load” for my return to Kansas’s largest city. Armed with the knowledge that my favorite chips in the world had not been discontinued, I set forth on an epic chip-quest to find them in Wichita. Alas, my quest failed and instead of feasting on the tangy nectar of vinegar and salt clad potato chips…I was forced to swallow the fact that there were noLAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips in Wichita, Kansas.
I have written letters to Dillon’s, QuikTrip, Walmart, Target, and other area retailers of chips. In five years, I have yet to get LAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips into Wichita. I have been presented with other salt & vinegar options, but none of them suit my taste. Must I be shunned to ingest detestable and harrowing options such as Cape Cod Potato Chips or the admissible Pringles when all I yearn for is to gormandize the contents of that light blue bag which haunts my dreams?
Snacking has become…spiritless.
You see, LAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips has the perfect ratio of vinegar to salt. Other charlatans veil their so-called chips in salt to besiege one’s tongue to eat more out of necessity, while LAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips create a sense of longing to masticate more from the transcendence of flavor. In layman’s terms: Your chips burn the roof of my mouth from the vinegar and that’s the flavor I’m looking for because I associate it with a happy childhood.
As I’m sure you know Wichita was home to Pizza Hut under the PepsiCo brand from 1977-1997. Being born in Wichita in 1979, LAY’S® was a part of my upbringing ‘til I left for college to pursue my dreams. Now, a man of restaurateur ilk and persuasion, I have returned to Wichita with my culinary insight and sophisticated salt & vinegar chip palette. These mountebanks being peddled to Wichita’s citizens is a wrongdoing of epic chip proportions and must be rectified forthwith before LAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips become a forgotten memory in our nation’s heartland.
Please, I beseech you to bring LAY’S® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips back to Wichita before their awesomeness is forgotten. The last five years have taught me that once you pop…you can stop. However, we can’t stop popping without your support. Help me in the fight against poorly salted spuds and return peace to the taste buds of hundreds of thousands…or at least just me.
Your brother in alkali marinated fried potatoes,
Ryan W. Gates
I’m not going to lie…it was a fun letter to write. Much more fun than the online forms I had to go through for the other places I contacted that were designed to filter my question down to a few possible solutions. My local convenience store (QuikTrip) was the first to get back to me with an automated response that quoted parts of my form to make me feel like I was receiving customer service. It was a bit SPAMmy but nonetheless, it did satisfy me to get a response and know that my contact had at least been recognized. Next response came from my local grocer (Dillon’s) and I was VERY pleased to read the email. It was clearly a form letter with a section to add personal touches but it was a valid response with real solutions and a person to contact if I had more questions. This was a full step above the QuikTrip response or the FAQ pages the other brands had offered. I felt better about my situation. Then it came in the mail. Sitting on my dining room table along with my mail was a large box sporting a Frito Lay logo on the side. I knew exactly what was inside: Complimentary Lay’s Salt & Vinegar Chips! Excitedly I opened the box and found 2 bags of my favorite snack…and a letter. I opened the envelope expecting to read another form letter and this is what I read:
I cannot tell you how sorry I am to hear of the deplorable situation in which you are denied the pleasure of facilely purchasing Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips in Wichita, Kansas. It disheartens me to know that all you yearn for is the tangy nectar that graces the perfectly crisp surface of the chip, that flavor that lets you revisit the joyous memories of a happy childhood. It is not our desire to shun you, to haunt your dreams with the shiny light blue bag, or to subject you to other detestable options.
I’m afraid that the good citizens of Wichita, Kansas may not share your exquisite and refined palate. They may not appreciate the culinary excellence of Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips. Therefore, the lack of zest and appreciation makes this delectable treat difficult to sell in the Air Capital of the World.
I will advise the men and women who make the decision concerning what shelves these haunting chips land on, and that our brother in alkali marinated fried potatoes is in dire need of a local retail establishment to vend Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips.
While I see that your decision and love for Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips is vast, I suppose relocating 200 miles to dwell in bountiful snacking bliss is a bit ludicrous. So, while the powers that be ponder your request to return the snacking peace to Wichita, I’m sending you two of the dreamy light blue bags. Yes, I know this is just a bandage and not the solution, but I hope you will find the spirit that snacking once held for you, if only transiently.
Your partner in the fight against poorly salted spuds,
That…is fantastic customer service! Not only did Leryn get the joke, she took the time to reply in a way that says, “We get it, we’re on your side, we understand you, and we are working to fix it…in the meantime here’s some chips.” I was laughing hysterically as I ate Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips and read that letter! It was amazing! Leryn sent a letter which in itself is a gesture of recognition. It recognizes your contact and says the brand is aware of it. However, the fact that the letter was written in my comical tone shows that a person read my entire letter and took the time to craft their own original letter from scratch. That is Customer Service and Consumer Affairs 101. Note how Leryn quotes my letter with phrases like “alkali marinated fried potatoes” and my intentional overuse of the full brand “Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips.” Recognition that the letter was read and being considered by a real person. Note how Leryn tosses new over-the-top phrases into her response such as “facilely” and refers to Wichita as “the Air Capital of the World.” Recognition that the response is unique, original, and crafted solely for me. Last, and not included in this for privacy, Leryn included her email and office number should I need to contact her regarding the matter further. Care. Trust.
I will tell you that as a consumer, it made me love the Lay’s brand even more.
What is comical to me is that the smallest brand I contacted was QuikTrip who gave the fastest response…but the most generic. It made me feel disconnected from the brand as I felt like they were not concerned with my opinions or what I had to say. I felt like just another customer. The next to contact was the medium-sized brand, Dillon’s. Their response made me feel wanted as a customer though I did not find their solution to be a good long-term option. The form response made the offer seem pre-calculated and thus lacking luster. Then, the biggest brand…Lay’s itself, gave one of the greatest customer service responses I have ever received. It made me feel important, even though it’s just a letter about chips in Wichita…someone listened. Someone stopped to listen, think about it, and then offer a unique response.
It is ubiquitous timing that this letter arrived on the heals of Cox Communications providing yet again what I still feel may be the worst customer service I have ever experienced in America…but that is a story for another time. This is a story about Frito Lay, PepsiCo, Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips, and an amazing employee named Leryn Stephenson. I don’t know if Leryn happened to be the person who got my letter or if the letter was passed on to her. I don’t know if Frito Lay’s employees are trained to reply like Leryn did or if I got lucky. All I know is this: I got sent 2 bags of Lay’s® Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips and that is a nice gesture that I appreciated. However, the letter Leryn wrote and the time it took to write said letter, that is what won me over as a consumer and gave me a human connection to a brand.
My advice I will leave you with is that people yearn for connections. We connect with people, places, and things. Brands and products can be part of that connection or the connection itself. For example, when I see Freihofer Cookies I have to buy them because they make me feel like I’m back home in Bolton Landing, NY on Lake George. There are other cookies…but none of them make me feel like I am home. Conversely, my wife got food poisoning from a restaurant many years ago so I contacted them right away about what she ate to warn them so no one else would get sick. They responded by saying they had observed her having an alcoholic drink at dinner and by her own admission was on antibiotics for a cold – they accused her of being the problem…not their meat. I never ate there again despite managerial and kitchen changes, my friend owning it, nor a family member foolishly investing in it. Now, as the managing partner of a local restaurant and the Marketing Director for a national retail brand, I spend a lot of time interacting with my customers online, in email, by phone, and in person. I don’t limit the way my brand can be accessed, I provide options for anyone’s comfort level. Once contacted I strive along with my team to form human connections with my consumers to let them know that we care about them and their happiness…because we genuinely do. If we have goofed up we want to know so we can learn from it and grow! If we have done well we want to know so we can congratulate those involved. Either way, there are no auto-responses. There are no form replies. There are only people. If a company as large as Frito Lay can do it, so can yours. Give your consumers something positive to connect to your brand with and they will remain loyal. Give your consumers something negative to associate your brand with and they will actively avoid you. Freebies are nice…connections are better.