Sales of popcorn in the UK reached £105m in 2014, up 40% from 2013 according to Mintel, with the average Briton now eating around 5kg of popcorn per year.
Meanwhile, the overall sales value of the UK crisp market declined by nearly 2% to £923.2m in the year to February, according to data from Kantar Worldpanel, while volume was also down by 0.4%.
According to Leigh Morris, managing director of market research company Bonamy Finch, the shift is largely due to a consumer focus on healthier or more premium snacks.
“We all know that crisps have something of an image problem in an increasingly health-conscious market,” he said. “Sales of traditional crisps are beginning to suffer compared with snacks that are perceived to be healthier or whose flavours are imaginative enough to attract consumer interest.”
‘Healthier’ crisp alternatives
Natalie Sugarman, head of marketing for popcorn brand Metcalfe’s skinny, told Marketing Week: “We are definitely committed to providing healthier, lighter and delicious products to consumers who may have historically chosen crisps, cakes and cookies as their snack of choice.”
However, she said that despite the brand’s name it will never be a “diet-focused or health-obsessed brand”.
Cassandra Stavrou, co-founder of Propercorn, which saw its sales grow from £1m in 2013 to £2.2m in 2014, according to data from Euromonitor, agreed.
“What has always been absolutely paramount to me and to the business is that we put taste first and don’t start off with a health product,” she said.
She added: “So often healthy snacks feel like a bit of a trade-off and I wanted to create something that didn’t compromise on health or taste.”
Adam Sopher, co-founder and director of gourmet popcorn brand Joe & Seph’s, said at the end of the day brands can’t be both delicious and diet-friendly.
“You can be a company who screams about health benefits or you can be one who focuses on taste, but I don’t believe you can be the healthiest and the best tasting – it’s impossible,” he said.
Growth opportunity through innovation
Despite the growth of the category in the UK, Sopher said that the average American eats two to three times more popcorn than the average Brit, creating a massive opportunity to expand even further through both product and packaging innovation.
Joe & Seph’s has doubled or tripled its sales every year since launching unique flavours such as the alcoholic Gin & Tonic or Goats Cheese and Black Pepper.
The brand also recently partnered with Laurent Perrier Champagne to create a bespoke Strawberry & Elderflower variant and has also worked with BrewDog to help the brewer pair popcorns to its beers.
Metcalfe’s skinny recently rebranded its entire range to “differentiate the brand from crisps on shelf”.
Meanwhile, Jocelyn McNulty, marketing director of crisp brand Tyrrells, said that while standards crisps may be declining, the premium or hand-cooked crisp market is seeing growth, further suggested that people are simply looking for “new and different alternatives” to the traditional crisp.
The brand is also looking to compete with chocolate by providing a “better-for-you” option with its recently rebranded Poshcorn range, which grew by 38% year-on-year to February according to Nielsen data.
“Britain has a love affair with crisps, but we think sharing bags of popcorn are competing with chocolate,” she added.
Reaching the cinema consumer
In order to drive further awareness, brands such as Metcalfe’s and Joe & Seph’s are also looking to reach consumers in cinemas.
Metcalfe’s recently extended its partnership with Odeon to offer the brand in cinema locations nationwide, while Joe & Seph’s is working with film studios to help promote specific films, such as an upcoming movie about a bumble bee for which the brand is developing a honey popcorn.
“There’s lots of fun ways we can go about using the product and getting it into the right spaces,” he said.