Chip off the Old Crock

"America's favorite potato chip" is celebrating. But it's not its anniversary. Frito-Lay "decided it was time to celebrate the people who have made the brand a success," says director of public relations Chris Kuechenmeister. Who are "the people?" The marketers? The executives? No. It's the farmers, of course. In May, Frito-Lay launched "Lay's Local."

As part of the celebration, the snack food conglomerate incorporated a tool on its Web site that lets consumers track where their bag of chips came from. The section of the site features photographs of sun-drenched farms and videos of actual farmers standing next to pickup trucks holding potatoes and sharing bags of Lay's. (Potato chips are made from potatoes, which grow on farms managed by people, get it?) The site's most touted, most interesting and arguably most misleading feature is the "Chip Tracker," which works like this: Buy a 99 cent bag of Lay's from the deli on West 4th Street in New York City (there's even a standee in the store alerting you to the Tracker), enter the product code online, and you will discover that your chips are from Dayville, Conn. Which is pretty local, right? Not quite.  

"They don't grow potatoes in Dayville," says North Fork Potato Chip company owner and third-generation farmer Carol Sidor, whose farm is located 2.5 miles from her plant in Mattituck, N.Y., on Long Island. They might grow some, she clarifies, but not enough to supply the demand of Lay's locally. Instead (and when you dig a little deeper, you will see that Lay's does differentiate between "grown" and "made"), they use potatoes from their 80 contracted farms located all over the country. While it is possible to make chips from potatoes stored over winter (as North Fork does), "most farmers run out eventually," says Sidor.

"It's a dangerous thing for them to be doing," says John Gerzema, chief insights officer for Young & Rubicam Group and coauthor of The Brand Bubble. In today's environment of social networking and corporate responsibility, Gerzema believes that brand transparency is more important than ever: "Everything you say has to be authentic," he argues. There may be enough fine print on the Lay's Web site to keep them from getting sued, but not necessarily from misleading consumers.

Kuechenmeister concedes that Frito-Lay made no changes in the way its chips were grown or produced. And while many people will see nothing wrong with shipping potatoes all over the country, the consumers who really do want to buy food that is locally grown and produced may find the subtle distinction to be enough for them to lose trust in the brand.

North Fork's Sidor doesn't know off the top of her head how many bags of chips or pounds of potatoes she produces each year. "Compared to Lay's?" she asks, laughing. "We are not even a blip on their radar." They may not be a blip now, but delude enough chip-loving locavores, and smaller, local companies like North Fork could become America's New Favorite Potato Chip.
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