See Yourself Inside: A bag of Lay’s

Lay's Potato Chips Classic Lay's Potato Chips Classic bag
Swirl pattern

Synonymous with summer barbecues, the most popular chips in the world and a household name, Lay’s potato chips are woven into our snacking DNA. But how does a classic brand stay so relevant year after year, decade after decade?

Quick history lesson on Lay’s: The brand was created in the 1930s by a traveling salesman named Herman W. Lay. He crisscrossed the United States selling Lay’s out of the trunk of his car and, in the 1940s, ran the first national television ads for a potato chip.

Now Lay’s is sold in over 200 countries. The brand that started in the back of a car is the most popular brand of chips in the world — but it still requires Herman W. Lay levels of ingenuity from a whole lot of people to make and sell each bag of Lay’s. Here are just a few of them.

Procuring the potatoes

“Everything’s direct-grower, so we know where each potato comes from. We know the farm, we know the field,” says Keith Ballard, senior procurement director for Frito-Lay North America. He’s the man in charge of buying around 4 billion pounds of high-quality potatoes a year to make enough Lay’s potato chips to fill store shelves in the U.S. and Canada.

He also figures out how to move those potatoes around the country based on growing seasons, transportation options and Lay’s factory locations. “The goal is less than 24 hours for what we call load-to-fry time,” he says. Most potatoes are moved by truck, but refrigerated rail cars are an option if it means superior spuds: “If I can grow potatoes out of Idaho and put them on a rail car and ship them into Texas, I can get a better-quality potato into Texas at a lower cost.”

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Every year, procurement experts at PepsiCo secure 4 billion pounds of potatoes from about 165 different farms.

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Supply chain and logistics managers then move the potatoes by trucks or refrigerated train cars depending on seasons and routes. The longest route is from North Dakota to a factory in Georgia.

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Due to growing seasons, about 40% of potatoes go right from field to factory, but the other 60% are harvested then “put to sleep” by the farmers in specially designed barns.

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Through innovations from PepsiCo engineers and crowdsourced suggestions from actual factory workers, it only takes about 20 minutes for a potato to come off a truck, be sliced, cooked and seasoned and dropped into a bag.

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The ideal shape of a chip is a “saddle,” rounded with a bit of a curve. “Folded” chips are actually considered mistakes that occur when a potato slice is too thin and folds over when it hits the oil.

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But consumers like folded chips so much, factory supervisors allow for them.

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To make sure seasoning is evenly spread, the chips are dropped into a large rocket-shaped barrel where they are rotated and shaken as the seasoning is dusted onto them.

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Lay’s uses all real ingredients and, for procurement managers, certain ingredients are harder to secure. One example is “aged cheddar” since the cheese has to be sourced years in advance.

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Twice a shift, three to four factory employees act as taste testers to quality control the chips coming off the line.

CAREER INSIGHT: Procurement Director

To make predictions on how to gather all those potatoes each year, Ballard needs people with agricultural business degrees: “They need to be able to communicate with the growers and do analysis on farm economics — which varieties have the highest net payable yield for the grower? What growing conditions will create the best quality for us?” he says. All those factors have to be determined before costs can be established.

Lay’s factories make chips nearly seven days a week — so the immensity of his job, the puzzle he has to put together to keep enough “loads to fry” moving, is hard to fathom. Add in seasonality and you’d probably want to set fire to an Excel spreadsheet, but Ballard clearly relishes the challenge.

It’s a fun number to throw out there when people talk about How many potatoes do you use? Four billion, with a b.

Keith Ballard

procurement senior director, Frito-Lay North America

Making the chips

One of the people waiting to put those potatoes into a fryer is Stephen Chahanovich. He is the material coordinator for the Killingly, Connecticut, factory and makes sure there are enough potatoes to keep the line moving. His factory typically goes through 18 truckloads a day, but that can go up to about 24 in the summer when more people are buying chips.

The process is pretty simple. Potatoes go through a peeler and a slicer before being dropped into huge fryers. Next, the fried chips go into a large, rocket-shaped shaker that evenly spreads seasoning across the chip. From truck to bag, the process takes 20 minutes.

We can make 14,000 pounds of potato chips every hour.

Stephen Chahanovich

material coordinator at the Killingly Frito-Lay factory

Once per shift, three factory workers (anyone from managers to janitors) are asked to taste-test the chips against a “golden bag.” If the chips taste off, changes can be made quickly to different aspects of the line.

Front-line factory workers are also essential for identifying line holdups. For example, Killingly workers noticed that the growing popularity of snack-size bags was causing shutdowns on the line. The small bags couldn’t accommodate big potato chips. The solution was smaller potatoes, and Chahanovich met personally with growers to take care of it. “And they started planting the potatoes closer together, so they grow smaller,” he says.

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CAREER INSIGHT: Operations Management

Stephen Chahanovich started as a third-shift processing operator and worked his way up to material coordinator. “I never went to college,” he says. “And I tell new hires, ‘Get good at your job, and if there’s something that interests you, say something.’ There’s so many opportunities — that’s the greatest part of working here.”

Creating all those flavors

“Lay’s are probably the perfect base for flavor development because it’s a beautiful palette,” says Ann Robarge, senior principal scientist, who has spent her whole career in R&D product development at Frito-Lay. “I found my home in the seasoning group, and I’ve been there for over 20 years now.”

About a decade ago, Lay’s stopped using artificial ingredients, and seasoning development went from the lab to a new culinary center staffed with chefs. The Do Us a Flavor campaign launched at about the same time, and Lay’s fans around the world could send in requests for a new seasoning.

“We’ve been able to go outside the box and try new and different things that make it so fun,” she says. “It’s a great day when I get to go down to the culinary center and say, ‘OK, we get to try different versions to get to the best version of Chicken & Waffles.’”

I led the work to make a chip taste like a cappuccino. Now, just because I can do it doesn’t mean consumers think I should do it, but I did it.

Ann Robarge

senior principal scientist

And how do they do that? They eat. But when Robarge takes a bite of something, she’s assessing the taste after each chew to see when a certain ingredient hits her taste buds and if it tastes the way it should — for instance, how many chews before the sugary taste of the waffle syrup comes through, and does it taste like syrup?

Once her team narrows it down to a few versions, they have consumers try it. “Consumers have one job, and it’s to tell us if they like it or if they don’t. And it’s my job to be able to understand why they liked it or didn’t.”

Giving Lay’s a new look

In 2017, the look of a Lay’s bag hadn’t changed for a full decade. Jon Guerra, head of design for Frito-Lay North America, worried that if the bag looked that old, the chips might seem old as well — and, given the updated ingredients and scores of new flavors, that simply was not true.

But how do you approach redesigning such an iconic bag?

Multiple bags of Lay's Chips

The full lineup of updated Lay’s potato chip package designs.

“We really wanted the consumer at the heart of every decision we made,” Guerra says.

First, designers and marketers did shop-alongs to figure out what people are thinking as they went down the chip aisle. “One thing we realized is that people who buy chips buy first by color,” he says. “When they want Classic, they look for a yellow bag.”

That made him realize that the logo changes would have to be subtle. If consumers saw a new logo that eliminated the iconic yellow circle and the red banner, they might think it was a new recipe or a different brand altogether.

The biggest change on the bag is the photography. Their research showed that food photography on Instagram has conditioned most of us to be drawn to food that is shot top-down instead of straight on, as it was on the old bags.

Top-down photography allows for stronger food styling and let the design team add vibrant images of ingredients and spices to make the bags more enticing. “I think if you look at the Barbecue bag, the paprika on the top corner is beautiful,” Guerra says.

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Lays was the first potato chip ever advertised on TV. The yellow bag with red Lay’s logo is now iconic and is trademarked in over 200 countries. When PepsiCo’s consumer researchers asked chip buyers to draw a bag of potato chips, they usually reached for a yellow marker.

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In 2017, the Lay’s logo and packaging were a decade old and the design team decided to update both. The process took two years and brought together consumer insights, marketing, legal and design.

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One of the big insights that drove the redesign is that while consumers like updated logos, they can be turned off by revolutionary changes—they want a continuation of what they love. So, the new design couldn’t stray too far from the beloved yellow circle and red banner.

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The design team’s biggest change to the packaging was the photography. The food on the bag is now shot top-down, which is a nod to the food photography that became popularized by Instagram.

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In addition, the logo was moved down to the center of the bag. This way it is never hidden by a shadow or blocked by a top shelf in the supermarket aisle. The frontline sales team loved this change.

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The Lay’s marketing team launched the “Do Us a Flavor” contest in 2012 and it proved to be wildly popular—the contest received 3.8 million submissions in its first year. Now, they continually reach out to consumers on social media for their opinion.

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Lay’s are sold in over 100 countries around the world though they go by different names in some countries.

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Lay’s are called Walker’s in the UK and go by the name Sabritas in Mexico.

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But no matter where Lay’s are sold, the chips all have the same brand standards and great taste.

Protecting the brand

Make even a slight change to that logo, though, and the first person you have to call is Jeanette Zimmer. She’s the legal senior director, trademark counsel, and she works with a team of lawyers around the world to ensure that PepsiCo’s rights in the Lay’s trademark remain strong and registered in over 200 countries.

“Our global trademark team works together to safeguard all of these brand assets — our ‘crown jewels,’” Zimmer says.

She spends her days making sure that no one is trying to copy the Lay’s brand or any of its global iterations. (Lay’s is known as Walkers in the U.K. and Sabritas in Mexico.)

If she does catch another company (or “entity,” in legal terms) trying to infringe on our trademark or package designs, she will try to find an amicable solution, but will take legal action as necessary. Because, bottom line, she’s not afraid to get salty to protect the Lay’s brand.

CAREER INSIGHT: Trademark Lawyer

“A day in the life of a trademark lawyer who works on the Lay’s brand is fast-paced and fun, because our famous brand keeps us on our toes addressing interesting legal issues,” says Jeanette Zimmer, legal senior director, trademark counsel.

Keeping Lay’s relevant anytime

“So right now, Lay’s is regaining its swagger as the iconic brand that it is,” says Lauren McGlory, senior marketing manager. “My role is to identify what does that path look like, and how do we resonate well with millennials and Gen Z audiences.”

One ingenious way they had planned to do that was with a “Lay’s Chip-spensary” at Coachella 2020, where festivalgoers could sample a variety of flavors. It would be a cheeky way to play off the popularity of dispensaries and market Lay’s in an unexpected way.

“We know the cultural moments that matter, the passion areas that feed them and how we fit — a welcome distraction that’s additive,” says Sadira Furlow, vice president of marketing. She’s the woman behind some of PepsiCo’s most successful campaigns, including the “puppymonkeybaby” Mountain Dew Super Bowl commercial that went viral.

But the Chip-spensary was not to be after COVID-19 shut down festivals across the country. One way the team found to make the best of it was to add some of that cheekiness to their social.

The popularity of Lay’s flavors has made the brand a social media juggernaut. “The one thing that keeps surprising me is people’s love for flavors,” McGlory says. “When you just look at their comments on social, it’s amazing how much effort and time people will take.”

Two bags of Lay's potato chips

These IG posts garnered over 14.3 million impressions.

One of McGlory’s favorite 2020 social posts was a tip of the hat to the year’s famous baby alien memes with two fake flavors: Chicken Tendies and Choccy Milk. “Because we not only reach out to the franchise’s fans, but we also reach people who just love different types of flavors,” McGlory says. “It got 14.3 million impressions on Instagram.”

And, finally, they leaned into Lay’s traditional position as the chip we all know and love. “In this time of immense uncertainty, it’s nice to have your favorite snacks in the pantry, and it does bring some joy and happiness,” says Jen Crichton, director of brand communications, Frito-Lay North America.

CAREER INSIGHT: Marketing Intern

Lauren McGlory, senior marketing manager, began her career as an intern while pursuing her MBA at Emory University. “PepsiCo was like the Harvard of marketing. The company is known to build the best business-minded people, and I just wanted to go where I can learn from the best,” she says.

Getting the right Lay’s to the right customers

Last year, Americans bought 372 million bags of Lay’s. One man with a bird’s-eye view of Lay’s customers is James Simms, regional vice president of sales.

“The product performs differently, and the flavor profiles differ by geography, by regions of the country and also by different demographics,” he says. “In places like Memphis, Barbecue sells extremely well. If you go into Miami, Limón sells extremely well.”

Such insights mean the sales team can get hyperlocal. “We cluster the portfolio down to the type of stores. Then it also could be clustered by income, it could be premium or mainstream.” This helps his enormous sales team decide whether, say, Classic or Sour Cream & Onion should be in the central spot in the Lay’s section of any given supermarket.

CAREER INSIGHT: Frontline Sales

The frontline sales team is considered the backbone of PepsiCo. James Simms, regional vice president of sales, is responsible for more than 3,500 frontline salespeople who supply grocery stores and convenience stores: “Day in and day out, we’re leading our teams to drive execution, and ensuring that we’re taking care of our people.”

Supermarket positioning is essential to the overall sales strategy. Simms’ teams have to negotiate with a variety of supermarket chains, from national stores, like Kroger, to regional retailers, like Publix and Southeastern Grocers.

But for Keith Ballard, the guy who gets the whole process started, it doesn’t matter where he sees Lay’s on the shelf — the sight always fills him with joy. “My team touches every single potato. So literally every bag of Lay’s in somebody’s basket, we enabled that,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun knowing you had a big part in that.”