Lyndsay Bashore, research scientist for the Planters® brand, likes to gather team members every quarter for a “Nut 101” deep dive to explore the characteristics of a new nut type. This is not only good for company culture, but it also helps her remember how much she loves her job and the people with whom she works.
Bashore and her R&D colleagues, along with brand managers and marketers, are always looking for new products to bring to market. The Planters® brand has a rich history and its products are stocked in almost every food store in the United States, but the team knows that to grow the brand, it has to innovate. Last year’s launch of a new line of flavored cashews is just the latest in a series of new products. More are in the pipeline.
“We launched a whole line of flavored peanuts in 2015 and 2016,” Bashore recalled, “and introduced our latest flavor innovation, Planters® Sweet and Spicy peanuts, in 2022. At that point we thought, ‘What should we launch next?’”
Reaching a New Demographic
“Our core demographic tends to be at the older age range, so one of our goals was to capture new, younger consumers and introduce them to nuts,” said Patrick Horbas, director of marketing for the Planters® brand. “We know that most nut consumers enter the category in their 30s when they start to explore snacks that have a health component. As a brand we were trying to walk this fine balance of maintaining the functional, healthful piece of the nut while complementing it with something more exciting, more experiential. And so we began to explore the flavored cashew.”
With so many nut types available, deciding which one to focus on might have been daunting, but for the brand team, the choice was clear.
“In all our consumer testing, cashews seem to be America’s favorite nut,” said Kady Mahaffey, associate senior scientist for the Planters® brand.
Consumers love the cashew’s texture, shape and flavor, Bashore said. And they have a sense that cashews should be a little more premium because of their size and creaminess. There’s also another dimension. According to Mahaffey, there’s no one brand that consumers associate with the cashew. This created an opportunity for the Planters® brand team.
“We really want to be the expert in roasting all nuts and the go-to brand for flavors,” Mahaffey said. “So launching flavored cashews was really trying to get a hold of that space for the Planters® brand to be the cashew brand.”
Creating the Right Flavor
Once the team chose cashews, it had to determine how to create the best flavors for the market with a younger demographic in mind. Consumer testing was the next step.
“We started out by asking what consumers are actually going to pick off the shelf,” Mahaffey said. “You can develop a super delicious flavor — let’s say wasabi — but that flavor is so unique that some consumers are not going to pick it off the shelf even to try it. So we start by researching what consumers think sounds good.”
Packing It Right
In addition to the name, packaging was another critical factor in the new product journey.
“The Planters® brand has a product R&D team and a packaging R&D team,” Mahaffey said, “and they work together to develop what we’re going to launch. The packaging team has to develop the right structure for what we’re going to pack it in.
“For the cashews,” she continued, “the packaging was heavily tested and focus-grouped. Not only were we showing consumers samples of products to eat, but we were actually showing them all the different pack types. Would you be more likely to buy it in a can, or this flexible package? With a window, or without a window? They gave us their qualitative feedback on what they thought they would buy.”
“We ended up going with a pack that’s not our classic canister but a portable, on-the-go pack,” said Nick Miller, senior innovations manager for the Planters® brand. “This can fit much easier in a backpack and suits the millennial consumer we were going for.”
Passing the Taste Test
“Once we got an idea of the flavor names that we wanted to go after,” Mahaffey said, “Lyndsay worked to develop countless versions of each of those flavors. We did testing across our company with employee panels and then consumer testing around the country to make sure that we got to exactly the right execution that would be favored by everybody.”
“We’d have multiple rounds of flavor tasting as a team, and we’d say, maybe it needs a little more sweetness, or maybe increase the cinnamon or decrease something else,” Bashore said. “We did numerous rounds, making tweaks each time, until we got the best flavor.”
One challenge, Mahaffey recalled, was that people have very different taste perceptions. “For example, we had one version of the cinnamon brown sugar cashew that was very sugary, flavored like a cinnamon roll, and then we had another that was much more spice forward with the cinnamon and a little more earthy. Internally, we were completely split as a team. That’s when the feedback from our consumer taste panels was especially essential.”
“In the end,” Horbas said, “we didn’t want to over-engineer something that was delicious on its own — we wanted to complement it. That’s how we thought through the flavored cashew proposition: You don’t want to ruin that. You want to make it better. And then as you get into the flavor profiles, you want to offer something that’s a little sweet, something that’s a little savory, and something that’s a little different, maybe with a kick, but pleasing to the senses for consumers.”
Finally, after months of research and testing, they settled on three new flavors to launch: rosemary and sea salt, cinnamon brown sugar and dill pickle.
Producing at Scale
Deciding on exactly the right flavors was a major step on the journey, but it wasn’t the end. The final step was ensuring that production met the brand’s rigorously high standards.
The two main production facilities for the brand are in Suffolk, Virginia, and Fort Smith, Arkansas. “For the cashews, we did trials making the products at the Suffolk plant to ensure that they were feasible to make on a large scale,” Mahaffey explained. “There is a big difference between cooking something in your kitchen versus producing it in a manufacturing plant. We had to make sure that the product was going to be loved by consumers when it was produced on a large scale.”
Each plant teammate who worked on the product had to learn the technique around it. During the first productions, Bashore and Mahaffey were onsite for weeks at a time to make sure they were there whenever operators encountered problems or had questions. “We had to help them through any issues and troubleshoot so they knew what the ideal product looked and tasted like,” Mahaffey said.
In the end, from an idea to the product appearing on the shelves, the entire process took about 21 months.
“But it was so worth it,” Bashore said. “At the end of the process, after all this work, our cashews received the highest consumer testing scores we’ve ever seen!”