Off Topic: Oreo Flavor Obsession

Since 1912, when the Oreo was first introduced, Nabisco had been content with their cookie’s traditional flavor: a vanilla frosting sandwiched between two chocolate wafers. Of course, the company fiddled with the recipe over the years. Ingredients like trans fats and lard were removed or replaced, the filling was occasionally dyed into fun colors, and the cookies were both shrunken and enlarged to create different product lines.

Nabisco even sporadically produced new flavor varieties like lemon, mint, and peanut butter. But that was nothing compared to the flavor explosion that occurred in the 2010s, right around the time Mondelez took over as the brand’s parent company. At some point, the shackles were loosened on the Oreo R&D department, and the whole brand went berserk.

Oreo flavors like birthday cake and red velvet, novelties a few years ago, have become standard, and they’re now are available on store shelves year-round. The newer flavors these days are released in “limited edition” runs, which come and go after couple of months. These limited editions are usually where Oreo releases the really weird flavors, like “waffles & syrup” or “cherry cola.”

The Oreo is the most popular cookie in the world with billions in sales every year, making three times more money than it’s nearest competitor. It seems risky for a big company to mess around with such a successful formula. So why do it?

I tried to contact Oreo for an explanation, but (not surprisingly) they didn’t respond. But, having consumed my fair share of Oreo flavors, I suspect that their strategy is three-fold:

  1. Get some media attention. Oreo is an old cookie, but some of these new flavors can get some buzz. When they release particularly odd flavors (like Watermelon or Kettle Corn), they seem to get a lot of it.
  2. Capitalize on seasonal trends. Apparently, pumpkin spice products do hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year, so it’s not surprising that Oreo jumped on that bandwagon. But that’s not all, they release new Oreo flavors to coincide with many holidays: Peppermint Bark for Christmas, Peeps during Easter, Hot & Spicy Cinnamon around Valentine’s Day, etc.
  3. Market test new ideas. I suspect that the tamer flavors, like coconut or dark chocolate, are really just broad market tests. Ditto for brand mash-ups like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and Dunkin’ Donuts Mocha Oreos. Mondelez is probably fishing for a new hit flavor, hoping to create the next Doritos Locos Taco.

But whatever the case, this “new flavor” strategy must be working because they don’t seem to be slowing down. For myself, I can say that I’ll grab a new flavor of Oreo every time I see one, and I probably wouldn’t buy Oreos otherwise.

I can’t explain why I like trying these new Oreo flavors. They’re rarely as good as the original cookie, and sometimes they are far worse (I’m looking at you Swedish Fish Oreo) But it’s still a lot of fun to try them all.

For the last few years, I’ve even been documenting these new flavors on Twitter (and I’ve compiled them into a list here). I’ve tried dozens of them already, and I’m still interested to see what comes next. Eventually, these flavors will start to get predictable and boring. Oreo’s flavor obsession will die, as will my interest to try them. But, for the time being, the Oreo R&D department still seems able to come up with weird and creative ideas. So, even though I probably don’t need the extra calories, I hope Oreo keeps it up.

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