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Why Do Brands Still Bother With Stunt Food?

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Every brand wants to create the next Doritos Locos Taco. But are they chasing ghosts?


Chicken wings and Mountain Dew have long enjoyed their status as the late night, non-alcoholic power couple. With their overloading bursts of sweet and savory flavors, consumers essentially lock themselves in a masochistic roller coaster of the senses. But, while manageable as separate entities, imagine a world where these edible heart attacks inhabit the same meaty space.

For a short time, diners didn't have to imagine anymore. For the 2016 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on January 1, mad culinary scientists at PepsiCo and BWW enabled wing aficionados to "DO THE DEW®" with a limited-time-only Mountain Dew-flavored Zesty Citrus sauce. "The immediate opportunity came between key figures at PepsiCo and ourselves," says Todd Kronebusch, vice president of innovation at Buffalo Wild Wings. "To say, 'wouldn't it be great if we could tie in Mountain Dew with next year's Citrus Bowl and having a sauce that's built around the essence of Mountain Dew?'"

Like any stunt food — or food items designed to provoke shock and awe (see: Epic Meal Time; its illegitimate spinoffs) — the Zesty Citrus Wings followed their predecessors in indulgence and uncharted flavors. Beginning with KFC's Double Down meat-pocalypse in 2009, companies have continued to experiment customers' appetites for innovation, like Jack in the Box's Bacon Milkshake and Taco Bell's Breakfast Waffle Tacos. The list grows wider — and weirder — each year.

"Every year it gets harder and harder to come up with something that’s new because the food industry is very mature."

"We are constantly searching for the next novel thing," says Barb Stuckey, a food industry expert at "concept creation" firm Mattson. "Every year it gets harder and harder to come up with something that's new," she says of society's craving for novelty, "because the food industry is very mature."

With companies pursuing the intersection between bizarre originality, taste, and commercial success, finding the perfect stunt food recipe has ultimately become a search for a culinary unicorn. We have seen such success with the Doritos Locos, a collaborative effort in 2012 between the fast/junk food titans Doritos and Taco Bell that spearheaded a two-year-long increase in sales. This prompted a surge in fast-food restaurants concocting conceptually absurd ideas, like the Zesty Citrus Sauce wings, in pursuit of a similar success. But despite being newsworthy and mind-boggling, consumers still are left whether these products are actual moments of genius worth their money and culinary experiences, or if restaurants are blindly throwing Frankensteinian recipe darts, hoping one will strike the consumer bullseye.

The Locos Effect

Since 2012, the Taco Bell Doritos Locos Tacos have enjoyed reigning status as the stunt-iest and most successful of all stunt foods. The degree of the present-day success in the Doritos Locos might have seemed impossible back during the initial release. Naysayers cried end of the world, perceiving the combination as the nadir of our cultural forays into lowbrow indulgence. Yet Doritos' infamous cheese-flavored crunchy taco shell filled with the familiar Taco Bell mix-ins soon became the gold standard for fast food perfection. Even those highbrow foodies, many of whom tongue-in-cheek-ly deplored the entrée, considered breaking their fast food hiatuses. By July 2014, Taco Bell surpassed $1 billion in Doritos Locos sales.

While the public was initially shocked by the munchies-minded partnership between Doritos and Taco Bell, many in the marketing sector saw the collaboration as inevitable. "Looking at Taco Bell and Doritos, that was a no-brainer because Yum! Brands [the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell] used to be part of PepsiCo, and PepsiCo also owns Frito Lay," says Ronald Goodstein, an associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University. "The way most people determine if that's going to work is 'Is there a fit between the parent brand and what you're extending to?'" he says. "So the idea of putting meat inside a Doritos Shell, that's really logical."

Stuckey echoed Goodstein's analysis of the Doritos Locos' marketability, adding that the success for any sort of stunt food predominantly depends on the recipe accomplishing a trifecta of requirements. "I think you do have to have culinary logic; you have to have a foot in the familiar; and you have to have novelty," Stuckey said. "And it's hard to get the intersection of those three things."

Stuckey claimed that unlike most other stunt foods, Taco Bell and Doritos' hybridized wunderkind wasn't a flippant act of tossing bacon into a milkshake or formulating an instant food coma with a triple-patty hamburger flush with hot dogs and potato chips. There was culinary logic, as it's not unfounded to dunk Doritos or corn chips into various meat or cheese sauces. And in terms of a market fit, the regulars and outsiders could appreciate the product.

The Mountain Dew-flavored Zesty Citrus Wings. Courtesy Buffalo Wild Wings

The Pursuit of the Locos Effect

According to Kronebusch, after signing deals for both the 2016 Citrus Bowl and an exclusive partnership with PepsiCo (Mountain Dew's parent company), Buffalo Wild Wings had the opportunity to up the ante with a new product. The Perfect 10, in their eyes, was a product inherently tasty, but also intriguing such that both parties' loyalists as well as the disbelievers such that they would try — and even fall for — the same product that had spurred harsh diatribes. "We recognize that Mountain Dew is a very strong brand and it resonates with a lot of our consumers," Kronebusch says. "This is one of those things where we want the believers and naysayers to go...'This is fantastic!'"

Beginning with Buffalo Wild Wings' desire to create a sticky-sweet promo for the 2016 Citrus Bowl, the brand's culinary teams joined forces with those from PepsiCo as well as additional third-party food brand Cargill Foods: B-dubs formulated the menu item's complex flavor profile; PepsiCo and Mountain Dew served as test tasters to give the ultimate thumbs-up for flavor and presence of Mountain Dew; and Cargill actually produced the sauce according to the two companies' likings.

The keys to a successful stunt food: culinary logic, a foot in the familiar, and novelty.

Similar to how Doritos Locos have their affiliation with midnight munchies, the Zesty Citrus Sauce-covered wings recall the untamed spirit of high school and college ragers. But according to Stuckey, the Zesty Citrus Wings aren't such a drastic product after all when diners take a step back to recognize what Mountain Dew is: a sweet, carbonated beverage. She explained that soda is a widely-accepted ingredient in recipes, particularly Southern classics like Cola-braised pork shoulder. As Kronebusch echoes, the brand really wanted to make the wings, well, edible.

Before they went off-menu, I took a trip to the Times Square Buffalo Wild Wings location to sample a few of the Zesty Citrus Wings. Surrounded by glowing screens playing muted soccer games and business workers in their suits sucking the meat off wings during their lunch break, I had at my disposal 10 of the alleged culinary abominations, complete with the suggested Mountain Dew pairing. They defied all expectations visually, featuring a glaze of brownish-orange sauce versus the iconic nuclear waste electric green. The smell was pretty strong though, although not so much Mountain Dew as a strong Hi-C orange concentrate aroma. And, as much as I really wanted my preconceived "this-can't-be-real-so-it-must-be-bad" mindset to be right, they actually tasted, well, good.

The wing experience offered depth and complexity — essence of Mountain Dew's fructose-y citrus flavors, rounded out with fragrant lemongrass and ginger, and savory notes such as salty soy sauce (BWW reps would not confirm what exactly was in the recipe). It was kind of like gnawing on bone-in Orange Chicken, and if it weren't for the sugar overdose from the 20-ounce glass of electric green Mountain Dew, I probably would've ordered another round. To my surprise, I'm not alone in such considerations.

Buffalo Wild Wings declined to provide numbers for their sales of the Zesty Citrus Wings, but Brian Silverman, the manager of Buffalo Wild Wings's Times Square location, claimed that out of 300 orders placed each day at their location, approximately 50 included some amount of the Zesty Citrus flavor. While this isn't proof that the Zesty Citrus Wings out-stunted Doritos Locos, these numbers prove the product is far from a flop.

Illustration: lalilele13/Shutterstock

Stunting Hard or Hardly Stunting

Whether or not the Zesty Citrus Wings have succeeded the Doritos Locos stunt throne, there's the underlying question of whether or not fast food restaurants should continue creating new stunt food recipes. On the Internet, we still see people decrying new stunt food innovations just as soon as the culinary teams are rolling their works out of the kitchen. However, Denise Lee Yohn, a former marketing expert at Jack in the Box, said that while the idea for a menu item might sound gross, if customers are willing to order it for reasons beyond the stunt factors, then why not experiment?

"As long as they execute it well, as long as the product actually tastes good, and people like it, then they should do it," Lee Yohn said. But fast-food restaurants (and experimental Michelin-starred kitchens, for that matter) have to gauge in the early stages of product development how much of a demand exists; essentially, they have to predict whether the fixed costs of R&D, promotions, and sales of new items (alongside variable costs for cooking the item) will at least be covered by the revenue sales, both from the new weird product as well as the menu staples. While Michelin-starred restaurants can rely on prestige, fast-food restaurants resort to press and promotion for new products.

Stuckey noted that some restaurants use stunt foods like the Burger King Bacon Milkshake solely to generating buzz. "If you do something and it feels stunt like or outlandish, you're likely to get a press," Stuckey explained. "So what they're trying to do is trying to generate press. They don't care if you order that product — it's all about keeping brand on top of line. If you order the buffalo wings [instead of the Citrus ones], they're perfectly happy because they got you in the store."

"They don’t care if you order that product — it’s all about keeping brand on top of line."

Others products such as the Doritos Locos, she explained, are actually intended for use beyond garnering press. Just a quick Google search reveals the wide-range of news stories (read: free promotion) that covered the Doritos Locos over the past four years, but the success of the Doritos Locos is visible simply in the numbers. Taco Bell enjoyed a positive change in sales between the original products' inception in Q1 2012 until Q1 2014, with the introduction of the Chicken Doritos Locos, revealing sales stretching beyond the initial news shock. Thus, one could conclude that the stunt of the Doritos Locos was justified.

Buffalo Wild Wings refused to disclose any information pertaining to the restaurant's sales and costs of marketing and investment upon request. However, if Buffalo Wild Wings Zesty Citrus Sauce-menu items hypothetically cost $1 million on R&D and promotion, which generated news stories like this one that piqued customers interest in B-Dubs, all of which ultimately lead to an overall growth of B-dubs revenue sales of more than $1 million, then it would justify the stunt. We could even begin to see a possibility of the item becoming an indoctrinated member of the Buffalo Wild Wings menu, similar to the story of Buffalo Wild Wings' Bourbon Honey Mustard Sauce. If, on the other hand, there was no growth and the Zesty Citrus Sauce was merely generating short-lived buzz that brought in curious patrons, without providing an uptick in sales overall, then the product truly was a futile chase at the Doritos Locos cheese.

Ultimately, aside from our unjustified sense of foodie morals that demand we quell the development of cataclysmic recipes, the market forces of demand and positive profits are what determine whether or not these stunt food experiments should pervade. There is no magic formula aside from shooting for Stuckey's trifecta, and even then what the guys back in the kitchen considered a success, many of consumers might not perceived such products as worthy of their interest, stomachs, and wallets. But whether it's luck or pure genius, every now and then, there's a product like the Doritos Locos that piques a wide consumer audience's interest, enough to break out of the organic qua non-GMO fast casual circuit, shell out a few dollars, and try something, well, weird.

"Fast food will always have the items that seem very indulgent, that seem unhealthy, that seem over the top," said Lee Yohn. "And I think that's part of the role that fast food plays in this culture, and that people want fast food to play."