• Dr. Mohan Dewan assisted by Adv. Shubham Borkar

Brands are more than just a name or a logo; they embody a story and a legacy that have been built over time. Behind every brand, there is a rich history and a unique set of circumstances that have shaped its identity and contributed to its success. These background stories have become an integral part of the brand, and they serve as an essential tool for building brand loyalty and connecting with customers. There are various brands that you think you know about, but do you really know them? In this series of articles we will be telling you unknown stories behind the known brands.

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In the annals of business history, there are tales of individuals whose determination and innovative thinking have transformed struggling companies into powerhouses. Richard Montañez is one such name, whose remarkable journey from janitor to visionary leader not only saved Frito-Lay from bankruptcy but also revolutionized the snack industry with the creation of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. His story is a testament to the perseverance, innovation, and power of believing in one's ideas.

In the early 1970s, Frito-Lay, the company that sells Cheetos, was facing dire financial setbacks. The company was grappling with diminishing sales and needed a game-changer to stay afloat. Enter Richard Montañez, a Mexican-American janitor working at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

While performing his janitorial duties, Montañez noticed a gap in the snack market. There were no products catering to the Hispanic (South American) community, a demographic with a strong affinity to spicy flavours. Inspired by his heritage and encouraged by an company initiative motto that urged employees to "act like an owner," Montañez decided to take matters into his own hands.

Growing up in a Mexican-American household, Montañez was exposed to a rich and diverse culinary heritage. His family's love for spicy and flavourful foods had a significant impact on his food preferences and culinary knowledge. This background inspired him to experiment with different seasonings and spices while developing the recipe for Flamin' Hot Cheetos. He purchased bags of unseasoned Cheetos and experimented with different mixes. Finally he mixed chili powder, garlic, salt, and other spices to a bag of Cheetos,the result was a fiery, flavourful snack that he believed could appeal to a wide audience.

Montañez's journey was anything but easy. Armed with his spicy creation, he convinced local stores to carry his product. He even approached the then-CEO of Frito-Lay, Roger Enrico, with his idea during an unscheduled meeting. Enrico, impressed by Montañez's passion and innovation, gave him two weeks to prepare a presentation for the company's executives.

Montañez's family understood the potential of his creation and the gap in the market that he aimed to address. They believed in his vision and encouraged him to pursue his dreams, even when the odds were against him. Their unwavering support gave him the confidence to present his idea to Frito-Lay's executives and advocate for the Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

Despite his lack of formal education, Montañez meticulously researched business strategies and created an elaborate presentation. He drew inspiration from a book he found at the library and adapted its principles to his unique situation. When the day of the presentation arrived, Montañez used his homemade visuals and passionate storytelling to captivate the room.

The Flamin' Hot Cheetos presentation left the executives astonished. The CEO recognized the potential of Montañez's creation and decided to give it a shot. He ordered a small batch of Cheetos that Montañez created to be manufactured and distributed. It was named as the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos owing to its fiery flavour. However, very few of them were bought and the sun seemed to set on Montañez's idea with the Flaming Hot Cheetos seeming like a swing and a miss.

However, on the news that his newly created spicy products were not selling well, Montañez soon noticed that there was no advertising for Flamin' Hot Cheetos and took matters into his own hands. Recognizing the potential of his creation and believing in its appeal, he adopted a proactive approach to promote the product and increase sales.

Montañez embarked on a grassroots marketing campaign, focusing on the community he knew best: the Hispanic population. He reached out to street vendors, mom-and-pop stores, and local markets to get Flamin' Hot Cheetos onto their shelves. Leveraging his background and understanding of his target audience's preferences, he utilized word-of-mouth promotion and engaged directly with potential customers, creating a buzz around the new spicy snack.

Montañez's family was deeply involved in their local community, which became an invaluable asset when it came to promoting his product. They helped him organize events, distribute samples, and connect with local markets and vendors. Their connections within the community facilitated the grassroots marketing campaign that played a pivotal role in Flamin' Hot Cheetos' initial success. He personally handed out samples of Flamin' Hot Cheetos to people and shared the story of how he came up with the idea. This personal touch and his genuine passion for the product resonated with consumers, gradually building a loyal customer base.

As a Mexican-American, Montañez's family understood the cultural nuances and preferences of their community. This insight was crucial in tailoring his marketing approach and product promotion to resonate with the target audience. Their involvement ensured that his strategies were authentic and aligned with the community's values.

By tapping into his community and relying on grassroots marketing strategies, Montañez managed to generate interest in Flamin' Hot Cheetos even in the absence of formal advertising. His efforts ultimately led to increased sales and the product's growing popularity, which caught the attention of Frito-Lay's executives and marked the beginning of the snack's remarkable success story.

Richard Montañez's dedication and ingenuity did not go unnoticed. He rose through the ranks at Frito-Lay and PepsiCo, eventually becoming a vice president of multicultural sales and marketing. He also received various awards for his contributions to the company and the community.

Perhaps the most significant recognition came in the form of a biographical movie about his life, which was announced in 2019. The film, titled "Flamin' Hot," hit the theatres and highlighted Montañez's inspiring journey and the impact he made on the snack industry.

Richard Montañez's story is a remarkable testament to the power of perseverance, innovation, and the belief in one's ideas. From humble beginnings as a janitor, he not only saved Frito-Lay from bankruptcy with his invention of Flamin' Hot Cheetos but also redefined and diversified the snack industry. His journey is a source of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs and individuals facing challenges, reminding us that with determination and creative thinking, we can turn obstacles into opportunities and create a lasting impact on the world.


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