When Top Ramen and Cup Noodles were first introduced at the end of World War II, they were proffered as a salve to a world grieving from tremendous losses and grappling with extensive food insecurity and rising prices – the same challenges many face today as the pandemic drags on.
But now, as then, Nissin Foods is offering consumers comfort with products that are at once familiar and innovative, as well as accessible and convenient – and in doing so is setting a course that others might follow for longevity and success in a highly competitive industry with an astronomically high failure rate.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup To Nuts podcast, Nissin Foods CEO Mike Price shares the secrets to Top Ramen and Cup Noodles’ success and longevity as well as what it takes for brands to break free from the competition, capture consumers’ long-term loyalty and remain relevant and fruitful in good times and bad.
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“An endearing brand”
As Nissin Foods marks the 50th anniversary of Cup Noodles this year and Top Ramen last year, it is safe to say that most Americans have turned to the brands at some point – whether as an after-school snack, a warm meal on a tight budget or easy-to-make, on-the-go solution.
The ubiquity of the brands across generations, socio-economic class, geographies and life stages speaks to the universal needs they fill and the core values on which Price says Nissin was founded.
“I always hear from folks that [eating Cup Noodles or Top Ramen] was how I got through college, or when we didn’t have much money, that’s how we lived, or as a child, my mom and dad would buy me Cup Noodles. And I think that really plays back to our founder Momofuku Ando when he invented instant ramen at the end of World War II,” Price said.
“He believed if you could find a way to feed the world economically, he could make the world a better place … and if there is food, there will be less hostility in the world,” he added, stressing: This translated into three key values – “great taste, high quality and value” – that helped Cup Noodles and Top Ramen remain central to many Americans diet,
Ongoing innovation breathes continual life into iconic brands
As monumental and consumer-centric as the invention of instant noodles was 50 years ago, it alone might not have been enough to sustain Top Ramen and Cup Noodles for half a century, especially as a barrage of me-too products and other inexpensive, convenient and filling products crowded store shelves over time.
But, Price says, the innovative spirit behind the initial launch of the brands helped keep them relevant and engaging for consumers through the decades – reinforcing Nissin founder Ando’s famous quote that “no company can sustain itself if it lacks the power to create new things.”
For example, Price explained, Nissin Foods keeps Cup Noodles fresh by offering innovative twists to meet modern consumer demands – such as Americans’ insatiable appetite for all things pumpkin spice.
“This year we’re launch a pumpkin spice Cup Noodles,” and while some “people thought we were crazy, consumers love it. They can’t wait to get it. So, we’re getting inundated with a request to get that product,” Price said.
Other examples include the launch two years ago of Cup Noodle stir fry, which is “super, super spicey and super hot, and what the younger generations are really looking for.”
Don’t go it alone – partnerships extend brands’ reach and impact
Price jokes that he sometimes feels badly for Nissin’s R&D team because he is constantly pestering them with ideas – so deep is his personal passion for innovation. But, he acknowledges, not every idea is a good investment. To separate the good ideas from the potentially expensive mistakes, Price says Nissin closely collaborates with its customers and consumers.
For example, he explains, Nissin Foods often works with retailers to vet ideas – first through discussions with buyers and then through pilot launches at select retail stores that allow the company a chance to get real life feedback from consumers and sales data before rolling out a launch nationally.
Nissin also works closely with consumers and Top Ramen and Cup Noodles superfans to develop new ideas that will surprise, delight and meet shoppers evolving needs. For example, last year as part of Nissin’s 50th anniversary celebration of Top Ramen, the company hosted a competition for a new “chief noodle officer.”
While Price says he is technically the chief noodle officer, the competition allowed a super-fan to work closely with the company for a year to develop new recipes, test new ideas and promote launches.
“It’s been a really exciting and fun opportunity to share the greatness of my job with one of our really loyal consumers,” Price said.
Innovating through the pandemic & other challenges
During the early months of the pandemic, gathering focus groups and getting together with retailers to taste test and brainstorm products in person wasn’t possible – but that didn’t mean that Nissin stopped innovating.
Price explained that while the fundamentals and the science behind consumer research and methodology changed during the pandemic when it wasn’t possible to bring consumers into a room to try new ideas and share feedback, the company found ways to test ideas virtually so that it could continue to produce new products.
“It was important for us to continue to lead in spite of what was happening,” Price said.
Nissin’s openminded approach to collaboration extends through to its marketing – allowing it to reach a diverse consumer base. For example, Price called out successful partnerships ranging from the World Wrestling Entertainment and Indy 500 champ Takuma Sato to Hello Kitty.
Value and access are key to Nissin Foods’ success
No matter how spot on innovations are, if consumers can access the product – because of price or supply shortages – sales and the overall business will struggle. Which is why, during the pandemic as inflation and supply chain challenges have increased, Nissin has worked hard to keep its products on shelf at a price point that consumers can afford.
“The supply chain situation over the last six months across the world has really deteriorated and we’ve had some fairly large challenges right now on the labor front, with container shortages coming from overseas, distribution, freight right now is at all all-time premium … and the commodity markets have been at all-time highs,” Price said.
The confluence of these challenges forced the company, like many others, to raise prices this year, but Price says that is the “last lever I try to pull,” and one which he is hoping not to activate again any time soon so as not to compromise consumer access.
Ultimately, Price said, even as Nissin Foods navigates the current rocky waters of the pandemic, the company looks forward to continuing to support its fans, living its values and innovating just as it has for the past half century.