Popcorn vs crisps

Propercorn founder Cassandra Stavrou

How can a new business stand out with a product that has been around for years, can be made by anyone and already has plenty of competition? Despite launching only four years ago, Propercorn has sold tens of millions of bags of popcorn by repositioning the food as a healthy alternative to crisps.

Popcorn. First produced 9,000 years ago in Mexico. Sold for over a century in cinemas and shops the world over. Easily made at home in a pot from maize kernels and oil.

It’s everywhere and anyone can make it, yet last year, Propercorn — founded by Cassandra Stavrou in 2011 — turned over £5.5m selling crisp-sized bags of the stuff at a rate of 1.5 million packets a month.

With nothing revolutionary or particularly new being offered, Propercorn’s rise has been achieved by presenting popcorn as a healthy and fashionable alternative to crisps. It’s a textbook example of cleverly repositioning an already popular product, refreshing something everyone is already familiar with.

Popcorn up 40%

The signs are there on the packaging: whimsical illustrations, prominently displayed low-calorie counts and flavours you wouldn’t expect to find on popcorn, including ‘fiery Worcester sauce’ and ‘sweet coconut and vanilla.’ Combined, the touches effectively distance Propercorn from the sugar-covered treat found in cinemas or microwavable bags.

Stavrou isn’t the only one to find success with the formula. Popcorn was a significant contributor to the £10m revenue Julian Metcalfe’s Metcalfe’s Food Company made last year. Butterkist, launched over a century ago, remains the market leader with it’s cinema-style popcorn taking 40% of sales across the sector. So how do you arrive on the scene decades late and build a brand that’s hot on the heels of the dominant player in the market?

Healthy snack

‘Healthy and savoury popcorn isn’t a big departure,’ explains Stavrou. ‘Everyone understands it — it works because it isn’t a completely new thing. Most people grow up eating popcorn, just not quite in this way.’

Stavrou first noticed the gap for a healthy popcorn in 2009 while working in a junior marketing job. Colleagues would constantly be searching for healthy snack alternatives. After having the brainwave, she dug out a vintage popcorn maker her dad had bought her as a teenager, and started experimenting with flavours at home.

Stavrou quickly became convinced that savoury popcorn would work as an alternative to crisps, so, at 25, she quit her job, moved back home and put her savings and loans from family members into setting up Propercorn.

Taking on crisps

For a lot of people, being healthy seems either inconvenient or over-priced. To counter this, Stavrou pitted her 75p bags of healthy popcorn directly against a packet of Walkers crisps.

Soon after launch she quickly found natural allies to stock Propercorn. Google Campus placed the first big order, followed by small chains such as Chop’d and Leon. It wasn’t long until Waitrose and Tesco were also selling the snack. ‘It helped that it was a time when buyers were increasingly looking at trendy health foods,’ says Stavrou.

Her insistence that stockists placed the range next to crisps, rather than with the confectionery, is something that Stavrou believes has been critical: ‘The way it’s packaged, the placement in store, the format, it’s all to show that it’s suitable for a daytime snack, consumed in a similar way to crisps.’

Fashion branding

From the beginning, Stavrou set out to create something that could exist as both a lifestyle and snack brand. To do this she carefully aligned Propercorn with fashion, a choice that has become central to the brand’s marketing strategy.

‘A lot of health foods look completely bland. I wanted to make the brand really vibrant, contemporary and fashionable,’ she says. After developing the identity herself, she enlisted an illustrator friend who had worked for the likes of Vogue to complete the designs for each packet.

Following a meeting in 2012 with the British Fashion Council, Propercorn quickly became the snack of London fashion events. The company has handed out tens of thousands of free packets at fashion weeks and collection weekends, cementing Propercorn’s image as the on-trend healthy lifestyle snack.

Reviving and realigning a familiar product has become a common strategy in modern food startups, from burger businesses to bread makers. For Stavrou, the success has been taking people’s fondness for the ease of opening a packet of crisps and combining it with growing enthusiasm for healthier foods.