In the spirit of summer barbeques and baseball games, I decided to brush up on my hot dog knowledge. It appears that this is quite timely, as most of the major newspapers are reporting that a "wiener war" is in full-effect. The battle - between Kraft Food's Oscar Mayer and Sara Lee's Ball Park - is somewhat speculative as both companies are producing market research and sales data that proclaims each company as the nation's top hot dog brand.
Regardless of who is currently on top, competition is heating up. Oscar Mayer's new recipe is promising premium, beefier hot dogs with no artificial flavors, colors, fillers or by-products - and rumor has it, they have pulled out all the stops and signed Mario Lopez as the celebrity spokesperson. Ball Park Franks is counter-striking with the launch of their Beef Angus and Turkey Franks - making them the first company to make Angus beef hot dogs available nationally. And, if you recall their commercials from the early 90's, even Michael Jordon eats Ball Park Franks.
I find hot dogs particularly interesting because they have been subjected to all of the major food industry trends and marketing tactics. Flavor variations, convenience packaging, low calorie/low fat, kid-friendly, all-natural, organic, gourmet, and portion changes have already been implemented in the hot dog world.
Despite all the options out there, "regular" hot dogs have become an American tradition. In fact, the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council estimates that from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Americans typically consume seven billion hot dogs - that's 818 hot dogs consumed every second - a rate that begs the question of exactly how taste discriminating are hot dog consumers?
This brings up important questions for hot dog innovators and food companies alike - how much do we need to revamp traditional, well-loved products - and how far can we evolve these products before consumers lose interest? While statistics seem to support consumer approval of healthier, all-beef hot dogs, innovation beyond that (such as teriyaki flavored dogs, for example) might be too much to ask of traditional barbeque-going consumers.
Take, for example, another American favorite - french fries. Does anyone remember Ore-Ida Funky Fries? Heinz introduced these chocolate, cinnamon and blue-colored french fry mutations in 2002, only to pull them from the shelves a year later. Turns out, consumers think french fries are just fine the way they are.
As we walk the line when it comes to innovation, how far is too far? If you ask me, foods like hot dogs and french fries were never broken at any point and thus, don't need to be fixed.