WTF? 5 reasons behind the mystery flavor craze

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Andrew Wardlaw

03 Aug, 2022 | 3 minutes

Following the introduction of two mystery flavors by Cadbury’s here in the U.K, why are so many brands breaking with convention and no longer telling shoppers what they’re going to get? Our Chief Ideas Officer, Andrew Wardlaw, goes in search of clues…

By invitation, I’ve become a taste detective – attempting to fathom two mystery flavors from Cadbury chocolate bars. I’ve spent the last 20 minutes in quiet contemplation. My eyes looking left and right as I let the product release its secrets. My brain frantically searching for reference points. For the record, I’m going with Strawberry Cheesecake for Mystery Bar 1, and Blueberry for Mystery Bar 2.

Cadbury’s launch is the latest in a long line of mystery flavors that have landed on supermarket shelves, and it’s a product strategy that appears to be gathering pace.

From Churro to Carbonara

It has been ten years since PepsiCo first ventured into quizzical innovation with its Walkers Crisps brand. The company heavily promoted three mystery flavours with the lure of £50,000 for anyone who guessed the set. The trio turned out to be Sour Cream & Spring Onion, Lincolnshire Sausage and Chicken Balti. There were three lucky winners.

Jump ahead five years and Mondelez entered the fray with a mystery flavored Oreos cookie. The big reveal was Fruity Pebbles cereal-flavored Oreos. Several others followed including, most recently, a Churro flavor.

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As the world battled a pandemic in 2020, Pringles offered a welcome diversion with a big mystery flavor that was finally unveiled as Carbonara.

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By 2021, chewable candy brand Mentos was running three mystery flavors that turned out to be Pine-Coco, Passionfruit and Strawberry Lime. Coca-Cola had quizzed shoppers several times over with its Fanta brand and introduced the tactic to support Coca-Cola Creations - with flavors inspired by the Metaverse. Not helpful.

And as we march on through 2022, Kellogg’s Australia is offering $10,000 for anyone who can guess the mystery flavor that’s ousted ‘Coco’ in Coco Pops!

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Something must be working!

The case for conundrum

It has been argued that such limited run innovations are lazy, and a sign that the R&D community are playing it too safe – and running out of ideas.

However, in a piece for The Grocer magazine, such tactics were touted as a cheap and easy way of seeing what sticks with consumers. “As well as offering consumers variety by offering new and engaging limited-edition ranges, [these launches] offer us valuable insights that inform our strategies” says Susan Nash, trade communications manager at Mondelez.

In my view, mystery flavors should not be written off as lacking ambition. They are an inevitable result of a number of factors that I will set out below.

Clue #1: Consumers are seeking awe and wonder

In its Food & Drink Personas 2023 report, consumer forecasting agency WGSN predict the rise of the ‘Sensory Seekers’. In a response to the pandemic, they anticipate an increasing cohort of people will gravitate toward the experimental and the newest of the new. “They are motivated to be the first to try different flavors, combinations or tech-led innovations.” Global fusions and new pairings will fuel the desire of these consumers.

Let’s face it, after the muted experience of the last couple of years, there is a palpable appetite for new. And as the cost of living crisis bites, mystery flavors represent a relatively inexpensive and accessible way to live a little.

Clue #2: Manufacturers want our attention

It’s the big driver behind MMR’s Making Impact series of webcasts. The great digital acceleration is weighing down on attention spans. Media consumption is fragmenting. Campaign effectiveness is sliding. Meanwhile, choices continue to be overwhelming. Why on earth would anyone care about your next carefully considered range extension?

Mystery flavors play to the most common of human weaknesses: fear of missing out (FOMO). Their limited life and captivating communications have a propensity to break through more effectively than a grand unveiling of yet another Strawberry & Lime.

As manufacturers struggle to be noticed on the airwaves, we must expect more product-based stunts like mystery flavors in the years ahead.

WTF Article lollipops

Clue #3: Social influencers love them

All brands recognize the importance of content across social platforms. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Content makers on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram just love to sample the latest mystery buys for the benefit of their subscribers. Mystery flavors are a gift!

Of course, the strategy only works if enough people are familiar with your original flavors. But if this is the case, there is something about this content that elevates brand status. It becomes more iconic.

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Clue #4: Hard to beat benchmarks

For brand managers, the tough reality is that it’s becoming harder for new flavors to succeed in conceptual flavor sorts, both in terms of absolute and incremental appeal. Most manufacturers will encounter lack-luster results for their most hopeful of flavor candidates.

Wacky flavors are polarizing. Flavor ‘twists’ are cannibalizing. Benchmark flavors (think Vanilla, Tomato & Basil, Smokey Bacon) are tough acts to beat!

Maybe that’s why many manufacturers have concluded that it’s easier not to tell the shopper what they’re going to get and instead rely on intrigue to trigger purchase. For limited runs, it’s hard to argue with this thinking.

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#Clue 5: Opportunities for brand intimacy

People love brands, but product consumption is often passive. I try and resist looking at my phone when I am eating, but it isn’t easy. As a champion of product experiences, I can see how mystery flavors can work to raise people’s levels of engagement. When the flavor is unknown, the consumer must really tune in if there is any hope of solving the puzzle.

Done well, mystery flavors can educate consumers in the finer aspects of product delivery, delving into some of the more subtle characteristics of a brand. This can lead to a greater appreciation of the full sensory journey and an expanded awareness of product sounds, textures and aromas.

So, there is more to this mystery than meets the eye. It is my belief that mystery flavors have a very powerful role to play in a brand’s product portfolio. They are not a replacement for breakthrough innovation, but in an age of distractions, mystery flavors can be a great way for brands to grab people’s attention and deliver altogether more rewarding moments of consumption.

Mystery solved.

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