Health food or not? Hippo toasties, the baked snack that died of an identity crisis

Illustration: Manisha Yadav | ThePrint
Illustration: Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

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New Delhi: ‘And it’s a happy ending’ declares a news channel, as a mysterious ‘Hippo’ hops around the world, ending the nastiest conflicts — stopping wars, neutralising terrorists, calming violent protesters and freeing children from labour — bringing smiles as he hands out gayly-coloured packets of snacks.

A voice in the background informs that Hippo believes “bhookh duniya ki harr burai ki jadd hai (hunger is the root cause of all evil)”, so “Don’t be hungry”.

Set to the tune of the 1965 Kishore Kumar song pyaar baant te chalo from the film Hum Sab Ustad Hain, this whacky advertisement was promoting Parle Agro’s Hippo Toasties.

Launched in 2009 and discontinued in 2014, the snacks have been described as a “successful failure” on the internet by many Hippo loyalists, who claim over popularity, and not the lack of demand resulted in the end of the product. According to them, Parle pulled back the product because they could not keep up with the market demand.

Interestingly, Hippo’s packaging was much more vibrant than competing brands like Lays or Kurkure, which continue to be available to today. The yellow, blue, red and purple packets of Hippo snacks were designed to catch the eye of customers, when displayed on the shelves of any neighbourhood store.

The brand did, in fact, manage to overshadow other brands for a time in the late 2000s.

The snack was launched in six flavours, Italian Pizza, Chinese Manchurian, Hot-n-Sweet Tomato, Thai Chilli, Yoghurt Mint Chutney and Indian Chatpatta. Later flavours like Afghani Tikka Masala and Greek Yoghurt and Cream were added to the offerings.

Today all that remains of the brand are tweets and subreddits in its memory and a petition on the online platform with over 9,000 signatures, demanding its relaunch.

Also read: Zaika India Ka: Vinod Dua’s iconic food show was a search for Indian flavours, culture & people

Identity crisis?

So if everyone loved Hippo so much, what went wrong?

In a 2013 interview to Business Standard, Parle Agro Joint MD Nidhi Chauhan had said “Hippo is neither in the chips nor in the biscuits category. We have tried to create a new category which we call munchies.”

Sadly for Hippo, the positioning of the product apparently never made this very clear.

Lack of a coherent vision led to the brand’s demise, claimed 25-year-old Devyani Sharma, a copywriter at an advertising agency in Gurugram. “Hippo discontinued because it wasn’t sold properly. The product was way ahead of its time and lacked coherent communication,” she told ThePrint.

A wheat-based munchie, Parle claimed the product was healthier than many others available at the time, since it did not contain added MSG (monosodium glutamate), had no GMO (genetically modified organism), zero cholesterol and zero trans-fat. They were baked and not fried, claimed the manufacturers.

However, Parle never advertised it for its supposed health benefits, which meant loyalists of existing snacks didn’t have a real incentive to switch.

The 2013 article in Business Standard stated that the snack wasn’t pitched as a healthier option because “no one is quite sure whether a niche positioning like health food as a snack option will work”.

While it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around this argument at a time when even McDonald’s is coming up with healthier bun options to attract customers, this is indicative of how different the market was in 2009, said Sharma. “Honestly, the communicators didn’t have the guts to sell the product in the way it should’ve been”, she claimed.

Hippo loyalists, however, have their own conspiracy theory to explain the discontinuation of the product.

In a subreddit a respondent claimed Parle pulled the plug on Hippo because it couldn’t meet consumer demands.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Hatim, a low-budget epic about an Arabian prince, gripped Indian viewers in the early 2000s


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