What’s Behind The Flavored Popcorn Explosion?

Cleveland — Few snack foods lend themselves to flavor innovations as ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn. The iconic comfort food’s ability to absorb different flavor profiles has resulted in a plethora of new flavors ranging from sweet and savory to hot and spicy to cookie and candy-infused variations. 

From relative newcomers with less than $1 million in sales to established giants doing tens of millions of dollars in sales, today’s popcorn producers are bringing it.

So, what’s behind the flavored popcorn explosion? 

Right Canvas, Right Time

Popcorn’s ability to serve as a base for traditional flavors and exotic offerings provides snackers with a multitude of options, sources report. This is an important factor in why the $1.69 billion sector grew 9 percent in the 52 weeks ending September 5, according to Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) multi-outlet and c-store data.

“Popcorn is a canvas that lends itself well to inspired ingenuity,” says Noah Sheray, president of Popsalot Gourmet Popcorn. Inspiration, he says, might include the world of craft cocktails, where seasonings and citrus peels are found, and snacks that are popular in other countries.

Concurring is Charles Coristine, president and CEO of Lesser Evil LLC, who notes seltzer flavors such as watermelon, hibiscus, pink lemonade, cherry and lemon lime “serve as a guidepost for summer flavors” and coming soon will be “microbrew-inspired flavors.”

Jadi Anderson, marketing director for KLN Family Brands, notes consumers are still gravitating to “standard” flavors including white cheddar, butter and kettle corn. 

“When it comes to sweet popcorn, we see more emphasis on nostalgic and seasonal flavors,” she adds. “These items are fun to snack on and leave consumers’ sweet cravings satisfied without the guilt of more traditional sweets.”

The timing of such introductions, as Americans attempt to define a post-pandemic normal, couldn’t be better, say industry experts.

“Over the past 18 months we’ve seen many consumption occasions for popcorn move to at-home — movies most of all,” offers Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics, LLC. “When we think about the enormous growth of Disney+ as well as other companies releasing movies directly to streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, it is clear there is an enormous at-home opportunity for RTE popcorn,” she says.

Looking beyond the pandemic, at-home consumption occasions, along with additional trends, will contribute to the sector’s continued growth.

At Conagra Brands, Inc., Joe Boesen, brand manager for Angie’s Boomchickapop, says households started streaming home entertainment “at unprecedented levels” during the pandemic, and he believes this behavior will stick, given the cost advantage of entertaining the whole family at home. “In addition,” he says, “as more workplaces re-open and welcome employees back, RTE popcorn will continue to serve as a preferred snack for on-the-go consumption.”

Anderson says consumers are more conscious than ever about the ingredients they eat and the nutritional benefits to those ingredients. “Popcorn tends to be a way for consumers to get the flavors they love in a way that they can feel better about,” she tells Candy & Snack TODAY

The pandemic also can’t be ignored when talking about the growth of snacks, she agrees. “People have been spending more and more time in their homes, which ultimately means that they’re buying more food for their pantries and they’re stocking up on snacks for their households since they’re more cautious about running down to a breakroom or restaurant,” she explains.

Another believer in COVID-19’s impact on popcorn consumption is Lu Ann Williams, cofounder and global insights director at Innova Market Insights. A recent Innova survey of U.S. consumers, she says, shows that 80 percent of those surveyed report buying more or the same amount of salty snacks during the pandemic.

“The rising popularity of RTE popcorn mirrors the salty snack category, with consumers seeking variety and snacking more than ever,” says Boesen.

And a much-needed escape, adds Mala Wiedemann, executive vice-president of marketing and R&D at Eagle Family Foods Group LLC. “During the pandemic many consumers found comfort in food and snacks, and many reached for full-flavored popcorn,” she says. “This trend is continuing with full-flavored popcorn continuing to grow.”

Looking ahead, says Williams, new product development is likely to involve more snacks with a core focus on indulgence, and a growing emphasis on premium ingredients and positioning. 

Products For All Seasons

While the peak period for popcorn sales for home consumption is fall, according to the Popcorn Board, year-round consumption is being helped by an ever-increasing number of seasonal offerings, such as peppermint bark and matcha for winter sales and watermelon and lemonade for spring and summer sales.

Another development for trend watchers: gifting. “Our holiday/gifting business featuring seasonal characters (penguins and polar bears to name a few) and flavors featuring chocolate and cinnamon, has shown substantial growth over the past few years,” says Sheray. 

Frank Florio, founder of Snax-Sational Brands LLC, notes the company’s cookie and candy popcorn vend packs are having phenomenal success. “We’re being approached all the time by the gifting market,” he adds.

“There’s a big opportunity ahead for popcorn producers,” confirms Roerink. “It’s a great gifting item, and since the onset of COVID-19, we’ve seen consumer demand for all things gift boxes, whether it’s chocolate or popcorn.”

Bright Future Ahead For The Nimble

Producers and analysts agree RTE popcorn’s future looks bright as flavor, packaging and seasonal innovations and limited-time offerings continue to capture a broad cross section of consumers. 

“The brands that create great tasting flavors will capture a greater share of those consumers looking for gourmet, full-flavor popcorn — both sweet and savory,” notes Wiedemann.

Consumer appetite for new popcorn products is robust and the potential for new flavors, limitless, adds Peter Gutgsell, owner of YOLO Snacks.

Not only limitless, but necessary, points out Mark Chu, director of marketing, Amplify Snack Brands. “As taste preferences change, popcorn must evolve to stay relevant. More and more consumers are looking for bolder, unique flavors. These products need to stand out on the shelves to drive trial, making packaging an important ingredient for success.”

Lesser Evil’s Coristine says the company promotes its brand on-shelf with pack graphics featuring different characters. “If you make the brand recognizable and get it out in front of people, they’ll buy it,” he tells Candy & Snack TODAY

Packaging is one way marketers can express who the brand is and what it’s about, says Anderson. “It is often the first interaction a consumer has with a product — it needs to stand out on shelf and be intriguing enough that shoppers want to pick it up and learn more. It conveys a bit of our attitude but also flavors, product claims, nutritionals and company information,” she points out. “When done well, it can boost your brand, but when done poorly, you might go undiscovered for years.”

This ability to adapt and be agile is a key factor for success moving forward, says Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice-president and practice leader at IRI, noting that producers will need to align their agility with consumers’ increasing mobility. 

“As shoppers became more mobile earlier this year as the effects of the pandemic lessened, there was an uptick in sales of smaller pack sizes,” she tells Candy & Snack TODAY

“However, as Delta variant cases began to rise, consumers looked for larger package sizes for continued at-home occasions.” Such shifts require that producers stay agile, making sure key pack sizes are available to consumers whenever and wherever they are needed, she adds. 

De J. Lozada, founder and CEO of soul food-inspired Soul Popped, predicts international expansion into parts of the world that are “late adopters of popcorn.” These include Mexico, Africa and parts of Asia. Further, she says, the market is ripe for small brands that might not be available nationwide. 

Ultimately, Anderson says retailers shouldn’t be afraid to rotate in seasonal offerings and different in-line products to see what is right for consumers. “And don’t be afraid to ask brands how they’re working to grow awareness and help you sell more product,” she says. C&ST