Doritos marketing: Then and now
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Little known fact: Walt Disney helped create Doritos.
Before Disneyland opened in 1955, Frito-Lay’s founder Herman Lay wanted in on the action. Lay struck a deal with Disney to open a Mexican restaurant, Casa de Fritos, as part of the theme park’s experience.
Enter Alex Foods, Casa de Fritos’ tortilla distributor. Owned by the Morales family, California immigrants from Sonora, Mexico, Alex Foods delivered ingredients to the restaurant for years. One day a salesman noticed stale tortillas in the garbage and told the kitchen they could salvage them by frying them up and serving them with seasoning.
The salesman’s name is lost to history, but the idea itself wasn’t original. Doritos are a variation of the totopo, a tortilla that’s been fried, baked, or toasted. That nacho cheese dust, though? Yeah, that’s not a Doritos’ invention, either: James L. Kraft patented processed cheese in 1916, and with the help of Samuel Percy’s 1872 invention of spray-dried dairy products, cheese dust emerged.
But it just goes to show, sometimes the most successful products aren’t original at all—sometimes they’re a remix of what came before them. Keep reading to find out how Doritos took a big chomp into the snack market with big product risks, controversial marketing tactics, and partnerships that fuel brand relevance.
Doritos brand timeline
1955: Disneyland opens.
1955: A Frito-Lay-owned Mexican restaurant, Casa de Fritos, opens at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
1960: A salesman from Alex Foods, tortilla vendor for Casa de Fritos, suggests frying stale tortillas instead of throwing them away.
1961: Frito-Lay marketing vice-president Arch West tries the new snack and falls in love.
1964: Arch West makes a deal with Alex Foods to produce the first iteration of Doritos.
1966: Frito-Lay moves Doritos production to their in-house plant in Tulsa, pushing out the Mexican-owned Alex Foods.
1966: Doritos is released nationwide with one flavor, Toasted Corn.
1967: Doritos releases a Taco version after southwestern consumers criticize the chip’s bland flavor.
1972: Doritos releases its signature Nacho Cheese flavor.
1972: Doritos produces its first series of television ads featuring comedian Avery Schreiber.
1985: Doritos undergoes a major rebrand to better feature the chip on its packaging and as part of its logo.
1986: Doritos releases its Cool Ranch flavor.
1988: PepsiCo purchases Frito-Lay, which unlocks future brand partnerships for Doritos.
1992: Doritos develops a product placement deal with the movie Wayne’s World.
1993: Doritos collaborates with Taco Bell for the first time to launch their Taco Supreme flavor.
1994: Doritos launches its first Super Bowl ad featuring Chevy Chase.
1996: Doritos partners with Pizza Hut to produce its Pizza Cravers flavor.
1998: Doritos signs a three-year deal with former Miss USA Ali Landry as the official “Doritos Girl”.
2007: Doritos launches its first crowd-sourced Super Bowl ad after its “Crash the Super Bowl” contest yields thousands of entries. The company would replicate the contest for several subsequent years.
2007: Doritos releases their Collisions line, which features two distinctive flavors mixed together in one bag.
2007: Doritos debuts its first of several “mystery flavor” contests to generate names for a new flavor.
2008: Doritos collaborates with Stephen Colbert on presidential campaign coverage.
2010: Doritos revives its taco flavor in its original packaging as a nostalgia play.
2012: Doritos reprises its collaboration with Taco Bell to celebrate the fast food chain’s 50th anniversary with the Doritos Locos Tacos, a taco with a shell made from Nacho Cheese Doritos.
2015: Doritos launches Roulette, in which one in every six chips is extra spicy.
2018: Doritos launches a Super Bowl commercial featuring a rap battle between Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman to cross-promote with Mountain Dew.
2019: Doritos launches an ad campaign without their logo or brand tenets to appeal to an advertising-averse gen Z.
2021: Doritos features Matthew McConaughey in a Super Bowl ad promoting Doritos 3D.
Flavor as a science experiment
Doritos’ product is the king of the four-Ps marketing castle.
Doritos’ original flavor is a far cry from the cheese dust explosion you’ll get from one of their chips now. Their original Toasted Corn was so basic its original packaging encouraged people to pair it with other foods and dips. In the 60s, Doritos was a sidekick, not a star.
But one thing Doritos developers (Dorito-devs?) have always been good at is customer engagement. When folks from the American Southwest chimed in to say that Toasted Corn was too bland for their Tex-Mex-influenced palates, Doritos added a taco flavor to spice things up.
Then, in 1972, Doritos would come into their own with their signature Nacho Cheese flavor. The cheese dust is a science experiment in flavor maximization, with nearly 40 ingredients spread across the chip itself and the seasoning. Here’s what you can expect to find in a Doritos Nacho Cheese chip:
Whole corn, vegetable oil (corn, soybean, and/or sunflower oil), salt, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese (part skim cow's milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), whey protein concentrate, onion powder, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, corn flour, disodium phosphate, lactose, natural and artificial flavor, dextrose, tomato powder, spices, lactic acid, artificial color (including Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40), citric acid, sugar, garlic powder, red and green bell pepper powder, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, nonfat milk solids, whey protein isolate, corn syrup solids.
Doritos’ ingredients list is so comically large it made Onion fame in 1996 when the satire website published an article with the headline “Doritos Celebrates One Millionth Ingredient”. But we’re not here to chastise the chip.
The flavor profile of a Doritos Nacho Cheese tortilla is a masterclass in gustatorial science. That fingerlickin’ good cheese powder is manufactured for its addictive qualities. Here’s the formula according to food scientist Steven Witherly:
- Salt and sugar—two major pleasure solutes
- Flavor-boosters like MSG, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate
- Acids that trigger the release of saliva
- The dynamic contrast between crunchy chip and quick dissolve in the mouth
- Half of all calories from fat, which our brains love as the perfect ratio
- Casomorphin release from the cheese, which produces a high
- The complex mix of the flavors themselves, which keeps the brain on its toes
Salt, fat, acid, heat—Doritos has them all. And after Doritos perfected their Nacho Cheese formula as The Ultimate Doritos Experience, they felt free to experiment with bold iterations on their core product. Some of their most beloved limited-edition flavor experiments are:
Two flavors in one bag, including Hot Wings/Blue Cheese, Zesty Taco/Chipotle Ranch, Habanero/Guacamole, Cheesy Enchilada/Sour Cream, Pizza Cravers/Ranch, and Blaze/Ultimate Cheddar.
Hot Ones Russian Roulette, Doritos edition: For every six chips in a bag, one would make you breathe fire. (Or, in the case of this student, possibly trigger an asthma attack.)
Doritos Late Night
Doritos Late Night was an audience comprehension flex. Doritos has long known their target demographic is the college partier, the person who loves to chow down on a cheeseburger or some nachos before passing out at 4:00am.
Doritos leaned into this audience knowledge when they created Doritos Late Night, with flavors like Tacos at Midnight, Last Call Jalapeño Popper, and All Nighter Cheeseburger.
Extra hot audience engagement
Early customer complaints about Doritos Toasted Corn must have made an impression on company culture, because if there was ever a company that involves its core audience in product and marketing development, it’s Doritos.
First, product development: In 2007, Doritos launched the Doritos X-13D Flavor Experiment, a contest to identify a new Doritos flavor in a mysterious black bag with just one clue: All-American Classic.
When someone bought a bag of the mystery Doritos, they were instructed to visit a URL and solve a series of puzzles to reveal what some people thought was a basic and disappointing answer: Barbeque.
“The chips taste just like barbeque. Well, more accurately, they taste like a combination of barbeque and ass.”—I-Mockery Productions
While the campaign may seem, uh, cheesy to us now, this was 2007 and an obvious experiment not in flavor but in digital, interactive marketing. Still, barbeque? Do better, Doritos.
Progress would happen in 2008 with Doritos Quest. The company ran the same formula with a mystery bag and some online puzzles, but the flavor was one you’d never expect: Mountain Dew.
(Except you might expect it when you know PepsiCo bought Doritos in 1988, which would launch a rich history of cross-promotion between Doritos and an array of other snack foods and soft drinks—but more on that later.)
But if you’re wondering what kind of flavor is elicited from actually mixing a chip and a soft drink, one reviewer said of the Mountain Dew chip that it was, “overwhelmingly corn-chippy, with a disorienting sweetness that's reminiscent of Fruit Loops.”
Mastering user-generated content … and saving millions on Super Bowl ads
In 2006, Doritos would embark on one of the most extensive and high stakes crowdsourcing campaigns in history: the Crash the Super Bowl campaign.
First, a note on Super Bowl commercial costs: In 1967, a 30-second Super Bowl spot cost $37,500. By 2020, that cost had skyrocketed to $5.6 million.
The average cost of a Super Bowl ad between 1967 and 2020.
When you’re facing that kind of media spend, you bet you’re going to pour as much money as possible into production costs—except if you’re Doritos.
The Crash the Super Bowl campaign was an exercise in trust and exploitation. In 2006, Doritos invited amateur filmmakers and enthusiasts to submit 30-second Doritos commercials. The director of each finalist ad would receive a $10,000 cash prize and a trip to Detroit for two to attend Super Bowl XLI in February 2007.
Doritos received thousands of entries and tons of audience engagement. People were invited to vote for their favorite ad among a selection of finalists, which resulted in almost one million visitors to the contest site.
But the real impact was felt in sales: In January 2007, a month before the winning commercial was set to air, Doritos saw a 12% increase in revenue. (In 2007, Frito-Lay’s North American division under PepsiCo earned $11.6 billion in revenue.) The first commercial-scale attempt at user-generated content was clearly having an impact.
The winning commercial, “Live the Flavor”, aired on February 4, 2007, and it was the first-ever user-generated commercial aired during the Super Bowl.
Doritos continued the Crash the Super Bowl campaign for the next ten years, receiving 4,900 entries in its penultimate year in 2015. Here are some of the most notable winners:
2009, ”Free Doritos” Super Bowl Ad
2011, “Pug Attack” Doritos Super Bowl Ad
2012, “Sling Baby” Doritos Super Bowl Ad
2014, “Time Machine” Doritos Super Bowl Ad
2016, “Dorito Dogs” Doritos Super Bowl Ad
Meme snack mashups from the fast food elite
Co-branding has been a Doritos staple since the 1990s, shortly after Frito-Lay was purchased by PepsiCo. The acquisition is responsible for such masterpieces as the KFC Cheetos sandwich, which, let's face it, looks like the most beautiful fast food baby ever born.
But well before the KFC-Cheetos marriage, Doritos made its bed with Taco Bell. Back then, however, Doritos settled on a flavor mashup with their Taco Bell Supreme Doritos, which is a far cry from the genius gourmandises we’ve seen since.
Fast forward to 2012 with the breakthrough that was the Doritos Locos Taco: a gorgeous hard shell taco made of Nacho Cheese Doritos and stuffed with Taco Bell’s signature grade E ground beef.
Harry and Meghan? Don’t know ‘em.
You may see a taco, but the development team at Doritos sees three years of research. Co-branded snacks are born out of extensive audience interviews and test kitchen experiments that assess two things: general taste and brand taste.
“I was just in the kitchen last week, and I was trying some milkshakes for a partner,” says Dena vonWerssowetz, PepsiCo director of marketing. “And it was maybe one of the best milkshakes I’d ever had, but our product, the brand we were using, just didn’t stand up in that menu item. It wasn’t a strong enough flavor with the rest of the ingredients in that milkshake, and I had to pull it. We were about to go work with them, show them the menu items, and I couldn’t sign off on it because our brand wasn’t distinctive in that menu item.”
After a collaboration is deemed worthy of customer taste buds, an additional four to six months is spent on marketing and production logistics, as any new meme snack may require specialized machinery. (As it turns out, Frito-Lay had the means to develop a nacho taco in its Mexico factory … but they dropped the idea after marketing decided not to pursue it.)
But all that waiting and research was worth it—the Doritos Locos Taco Supreme is still available in its original Nacho Cheese flavor in Taco Bell restaurants across America, fueling the remainder of our collective pandemic ennui for the foreseeable future.
Celebrities are here for the Doritos collab
Peter Dinklage. Morgan Freeman. A rap battle.
It was the collab no one knew they wanted but nevertheless got. Named “A Song of Ice and Fire”—an homage to Dinklage’s Game of Thrones home—the commercial aired during the 2018 Super Bowl and probably ate up most of the cost savings from previous years of user-generated content.
Peter Dinklage and Missy Elliot are the stars representing Doritos, while Morgan Freeman and Busta Rhymes are representing Mountain Dew. The battle is presented as one between fire and ice, with Doritos bringing the heat and Mountain Dew coming in with the cooldown at the end.
The collaboration was praised as one of the best Super Bowl ads that year. At the end of 2018, Doritos sales were up by 6% and comprised more than half of Frito-Lay's total revenue for the year.
Since then, Doritos has focused on more celebrities for many of its smash hit Super Bowl ads. In 2021, Matthew McConaughey starred in a brilliant Super Bowl ad for Doritos 3D, a puffed version of the snack.
The ad ranked #8 by digital share of voice, which by Doritos’ standards isn’t a massive success. But it’s okay — the brand has been developing a plan to reach a younger audience for several years, using a strategy they’ve earned over their 57 years in existence.
Ditching the Doritos logo for a new generation
After more than 50 years of brand awareness, Doritos made one of its boldest decisions yet—it ditched its logo.
Billed as a way to reach an “ad-averse gen Z”, the “Logo Goes Here” campaign doesn’t seem to have accomplished its goal. While acknowledging that gen Z doesn’t want to be hit over the head with overt advertising, Doritos developed an ad that smacks of innuendo instead.
But no legacy brand would be complete without humiliating attempts to stay relevant among the yute. Since 2019 Doritos seems to have rallied its gen Z marketing through what the brand does best: collaborations and sports.
E-sports, to be exact. Doritos has pivoted its audience strategy from traditional sports fans to young gamers on Twitch. Since 2018, the brand has hosted the Doritos Bowl, an e-sports tournament as part of TwitchCon. The tournament featured four teams led by some of Twitch’s most successful creators, including Ninja, DrLupo, Shroud and CouRage. The prize was $250,000.
Since then, Doritos has expanded to host the Doritos Disruptors series on Twitch. And as part of their partnership with Call of Duty, Doritos developed a calling card—obviously Doritos, but no logo in sight.
Doritos is making a series of smart moves by investing in a Twitch strategy rife with creator-led content. Doritos is the ultimate gamer snack food, and if you throw in a pandemic, that’s a recipe for snack success. In 2020, Frito-Lay saw a surge in demand for snack foods, which rose by 7% in Q3 2020.
Even beyond the pandemic, however, if Doritos is positioning itself as the snack for gamers, that’s a long-term bet that may just live beyond any one ad, logo or not.