First created in 1980, over the last five years, Huy Fong Cock brand Sriracha hot sauce has taken the world by storm. Rarely has a condiment – sold in uniform mass produced plastic bottles – garnered not only an international following but also cult acclaim. You can buy it on Amazon, where it’s listed as the number one bestseller in the chilli/hot sauce section. It has inspired numerous recipe books, and even a documentary detailing its rise to global acclaim. It has been used to make jams, lollipops and cocktails, and a quick perusal of Google's offerings for the search term “Sriracha recipes” will make the mind boggle, the mouth water, as all manner of exotic and downright peculiar recipe suggestions appear on the screen. From Peanut Butter Sriracha Cookies to Sriracha Roasted Cauliflower or the slightly confusing all-boxes-ticked Sriracha quinoa millet cranberry orange peanut savoury gluten-free vegan granola. There’s even Sriracha Ice Cream Sandwiches. It seems like the creativity (or madness) of Sriracha fans knows no bounds. And if you're keen to tell the world of your dedication to the sauce – you can even invest in a Sriracha hoodie, so everyone will know with exactly which delicious condiment you choose to affiliate yourself.
The brand has achieved the status of genuine cult phenomenon – and with reported sales of over 20 million bottles in 2012, it's proven to be a mainstream financial success as well.
So why has this relatively straightforward sauce (chilli, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt and a liberal dose of MSG, if you were wondering) whet the appetites and the imagination of the hip fooderati worldwide? Perhaps it has something to do with the relatively simple branding – although fans have thought out numerous creative and wild possibilities for its use, the sauce itself comes in relatively few variants (sriracha, chilli garlic and, naturally, extra hot) and one look at the official website (http://www.huyfong.com), an impressively amateur affair which would not appear out of place hosted by Geocities or Angelfire in the early 2000s, makes it clear that the PR management of the company are either virtually non-existent or playing a very, very clever game.
But who needs a massive smoke-and-mirrors advertising campaign when fans of the product are so keen to proselytize of its greatness regardless? From the documentary, funded entirely by an immensely successful Kickstarter crowdfunding callout ($5,000 asked for, $21,000 raised), to an unofficial Facebook page with over 80,000 likes and a fan organised festival Huy Fong Sriracha hot sauce has benefitted from perhaps one of the most successful word-of-mouth campaigns in recent history. Late 2013 saw the internet aflame with mass panic, as news was leaked that their California production facility may have to close due to local residents angry about the apparently noxious chilli released into their air. Immediately, we were awash with articles and blog posts breaking the potentially devastating news to fans and disciples. From the Huffington Post to The Guardian, respectable Journals of Opinion felt no qualms about dedicating valuable column inches to the future of the condiment, and what the potential shortage might mean to the fans who were now allegedly stockpiling supplies of the sauce. The hashtag #srirachapocalypse set social media on fire with discussion of the hot topic of the moment, as people discussed coping mechanisms and survival techniques (“Never fear, hot sauce fans: You can make your own Sriracha sauce”, the NY Daily News attempted to console those in a state of panic). The more sceptical amongst us might begin to suspect that this was the perfect PR coup, particularly as the threatened factory closure was quickly postponed. Yet David Tran, the CEO of Huy Fong hot sauce, claims that in the 34 year history of the sauce his company has never employed one single salesman, or spent a single cent on advertising – which would seem to support his claimed business philosophy of “product before profit”.
Just why is it that this sauce has managed to capture the minds and hearts such a dedicated, even fanatical fan base? Perhaps it’s the story of its CEO – by all accounts, a humble man who has never increased the wholesale price of the sauce, and created the product because he wanted to bring the taste of his native Vietnam to LA, where as a newcomer he failed to find a sauce satisfactorily hot enough to spice up his diet. Perhaps the sauce has merely managed to surf a wave at the exact right time – chilli sauce sales are a big business right now, with hot sauce being one of the top ten fastest growing industries in the US market. Or perhaps it's the sheer ferocity of its strength – amongst hot sauce aficionados, people brag about their ability to consume sauces that pack an almost painful chilli punch. A powerful spicy sauce can separate the men from the boys, and Huy Fong Cock sauce boasts none-too-shabby 1,000–2,500 heat units on the Scoville Scale. Better news still, there are even supposed health benefits – capsaicin, found in chillies, boosts metabolism and is also said to promote production of serotonin, important for a better mood and memory.
Their website states that “All our sauces, from the chillies to the bottles, are proudly made in the U.S.A.” Essentially, a fairly simple spicy sauce – a gussied up version of tomato ketchup with echoes of exotic origins – Huy Fong hot sauce is nevertheless a very American product and a perfect example of a fantastic and innovative method of branding, utilizing every possibility of the contemporary infosphere; maximum effectiveness with an appealing price tag. Sriracha hot sauce is a phenomenon of the information age. Without excessive marketing campaigns and aggressive advertising, Huy Fong Cock Sauce has benefited from the magnified form of word-of-mouth publicity which the internet provides. Despite the claims of Tran, it seems that at least somebody at the company is aware of how effective their unconventional marketing strategy can be – most recently, following the assuaged panic of “#srirachapocalypse”, fans have been invited to a Willy Wonka style visit to the Sriracha factory.
Words by Philippa Dee