Digital Salt

What app makers can learn from snack makers, via a terrific New York Times Magazine piece on the snack food industry.

February 24, 2013
Jonathan Libov

The recent New York Times Magazine piece on the snack food industry, adapted from the authors’ book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, is chock full of ideas for anyone in the business of driving online consumption. While the piece reads like an exposé for an industry that’s likened to the tobacco business, the fact of the matter is that the managers of the snack industry have mastered behavioral engineering to a degree to which many app makers should aspire.

The notion that app makers should learn tricks of the trade from the companies that are driving its consumers to diabetes, obesity and other life-threatening epidemics is a squirmish one, but let’s not forget:

  • Not all of us are opposed to some unsavory practices (get it?) in the spirit of what we call “growth hacking” - something that more mature businesses refer to as “marketing”.

  • If you’re in the entertainment-side of things - games, social, photo/video, music - you hopefully recognize that your raison d'être is not exactly making the world a better place. If you’d describe your app or service as a way to deliver happiness, consider that snack manufacturers would too.

On to some highlights from the piece that apply particularly well to the app makers. But first a funny note that, as I was preparing to publish this blog post - and hopefully get an upvote or two on Hacker News - the New York Times piece was as high as #2 yesterday on Hacker News. That discussion focused more on biochemistry and personal nutrition habits ("Are you really putting a full cup of cream into a serving of cauliflower soup?") than how insights from the piece might apply to other industries like ours (tech). So I may actually have something to add to the conversation ;-)

Make it eminently consumable

Food Scientists Steven Witherly, author of "Why Humans Like Junk Food.” describes the Cheeto puff:

“This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in can just keep eating it forever.”

When I read this passage, I think of how greatly the social giants have reduced actions to a single, light-as-vapor click: Likes, Retweets, Reblogs. How fast are the primary actions in your app? If it takes longer to complete an action than it does to bite, chew and swallow a Cheeto, you might just be doing it wrong.

Find the "bliss point"

Food engineers have a few ingredients at their disposal, which, at the right combination, provide the optimal level of "sensory-specific satiety", otherwise referred to as "bliss". Those ingredients are starch, sugar, fat, and salt.

It's key to remember that there's an optimal level at the top of the curve which is not the maximum:

In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.

Whereas snack makers are aiming to stimulate our taste buds, app makers are often aiming to stimulate the ego. Social app makers have a few ingredients at their disposal: Likes/Favorites, Comments, Retweets, Reblogs and the like. Game creators have points and leveling-up.

One of the reason that Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, among others, dominate the social app world is that they provide an optimal but not overwhelming level of ego-stimulation. When someone appreciates your post enough to Like it, comment on it, or retweet it, it gives your sense of self-worth a little boost. Contrast this with the early days of MySpace, a free-for-all of animated-GIF's and auto-playing WAV files that overwhelmed the visual and auditory senses and made tamer members feel as if they were part of a club to which they didn't belong. The rise-and-fall of ChatRoulette smacks of the "distinct, overriding single flavor" that told our brains to stop consuming.

For more on a similar topic, check out Nir Eyal's post on "The Habit Zone".

Think about Lunch, not the bologna

One of the most insightful aspects of the piece is the manner in which managers frame their problems:

Bob Drane was the company's vice president for new business strategy and development when Oscar Mayer tapped him to try to find some way to reposition bologna and other troubled meats that were declining in popularity and sales. Drane’s first move was to try to zero in not on what Americans felt about processed meat but on what Americans felt about lunch.

Drane's approach is reminiscent of Jobs-to-be-Done theory and practice, which (and I'm butchering this) encourages product owners to approach the product development process by searching for "outcomes that customers are seeking". Drane had the insight to understand that one of the issues plaguing processed meats like bologna wasn't inherent to the ingredients, but rather to the task of Mom's not having the time or focus to package a complete lunch. His research bore Lunchables, a plastic-sealed Bento Box of kids' lunchtime food: a meat-and-starch combination, a side, a dessert and drink.

App makers may often lose sight of why their products are hired. Games are hired to entertain and offer players the opportunity to achieve; related themes can be found here and there on Tadhg Kelly's excellent blog What Games Are. Social apps are often hired to boost ego, and not necessarily as a genuine means of expression. Instead of thinking about how to boost your virality, try to think about why your app's content would ever be viral in the first place; in other words, ask yourself, how would sharing this content have a substantially positive effect on the user's ego?

Call it like it's not

Consumers aren't (entirely) stupid. They can sniff out when they're being deceived, and they catch on to lies over time. When consumers take a more pro-active approach to consumption, their BS-sniffers accelerate. One of the ways snack makers have stayed ahead of consumers' BS-sniffers is to reframe the same ol' products in a package that evokes, but isn't actually, what those consumers are seeking.

Take "pita chips", which remind of a relatively healthy snack: low-salt pitas and a light dip, like hummus.

Frito-Lay acquired Stacy’s Pita Chip Company, which was started by a Massachusetts couple who made food-cart sandwiches and started serving pita chips to their customers in the mid-1990s. In Frito-Lay’s hands, the pita chips averaged 270 milligrams of sodium — nearly one-fifth a whole day’s recommended maximum for most American adults — and were a huge hit among boomers.

Similarly, Yoplait is peddled by General Mills as a healthy breakfast food, when in reality it's so filled with sugar to quality as a dessert.

Now think about the way that Mark Zuckerberg frames the Facebook product. In Facebook's S-1 letter, Zuckerberg writes that "Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected."

Zuckerberg's "company" (read: an "eyeball" driven media company) is to "junk food" as Frito-Lay Pita Chips or General Mills' Yoplait are to "healthy snacks". Never mind what's "true" or "accurate" about any of these companies and their prodcuts; for real insights, look at their bottom lines.

Measure to optimize products and discover unmet needs

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his TED Talk “Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce”, the chunky variety of spaghetti sauce that you can now find on supermarket shelves was brought about by Howard Moskowitz. Commissioned by Prego in the 1980’s to understand taste and demand for spaghetti sauce among American consumers, Moskowitz discovered that one of the qualities consumers sought was chunkiness:

Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country.

I’m reminded of one similar anecdote from Mark Suster’s post about why he invested in Pose founder Dustin Rose, who researched his product post-angel funding. While most of us can’t pull this off, and while I don’t know diddley squat about what’s going on at Pose, it’s an interesting notion to chew on in this era of build an MVP and then test it.

I don’t need to add to the volumes that have been posted online about the value of measurement, but the it’s true that there are dead simple varieties of apps - Snapchat, Instagram - that were practically waiting to be discovered. I don’t know how the big gaming companies’ research departments work, but I suspect they’re active in scouting which gaming varieties aren’t yet present on the market. I also suspect that some keen developers will adapt the Tim-Ferriss-style AdWords-as-Focus-Group methods to research his way to developing the next big app...perhaps via Google in the Play Store, where you’re free to submit whatever you want?

"Drinks and Drinkers"

Coca Cola's President and COO of North and South America Jeffrey Dunn talks about efficiency in increasing consumption among existing new customers versus new ones:

“The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

With the rise-of-in-app-purchase and subscriptions, Apple and Google Play are offering developers a better means to monetize their existing customers. With paid upgrades potentially in the offing, how much more do you stand to gain by selling your existing users another bottle of Coke instead of finding a new customer to buy their first?

If you made it all the way to the end of this post, thanks for reading. I haven't decided whether to add comments to this blog, so if you have a response please tweet me at @libovness or email me at jonathan.libov AT gmail.