Someone once said: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. That person does not work for Oreo.

Oreo makes a lot of cookies — 40 billion of them in 18 countries each year — enough to make it the world’s best-selling cookie. Most of them are the familiar sandwich that’s over 100 years old: white cream nestled between two chocolate wafers. But the company has increasingly been experimenting with limited-edition flavours that seemed designed as much for an Instagram feed as they are to be eaten.

“Everyone loves the classic Oreo,” said Madeline Vincent, a brand manager for Oreo. “We don’t mess with that.”

But outside that classic Oreo? Oh, there is much messing about. This year, the company released limited-edition flavours like Jelly Donut, Mississippi Mud Pie and Firework. They joined a packed shelf that has recently included flavours like Cookie Dough, Birthday Cake, Mint, S’Mores and Red Velvet, which proved so popular as a limited edition that the company upgraded it to everyday flavour status.

The limited-edition flavours are scarce by design, appearing on shelves for eight to 10 weeks. Some are available only in certain markets or certain stores; Mississippi Mud Pie, for example, was specific to Dollar General stores, which have their headquarters in the South.

The scarcity is not to torture you, Vincent said, but is because Oreo thinks a flavour might be better received in one area than another.

“We consider a variety of factors to determine the right flavours for the right markets and partners, such as customer feedback and consumer preference,” Vincent said, adding that there is no specific template for which flavour goes to which retailer. “It is decided on a case-by-case basis.”

But there are certain flavours that even fewer people will get to try: those that result from a social media contest that will earn one Oreo fan US$500,000. The company is using the hashtag #MyOreoCreation to collect suggested flavours. The top flavours, as determined by Oreo, will be produced and available nationwide next year for the public to vote on.

And here’s where things get, comparatively, weird. Some contenders so far have included English Breakfast Tea (it tastes like tea), Peach Melba (has the flavour of a gummi peach), Mermaid (a sort of lime cream), and at least three doughnut-adjacent flavours to complement the Jelly Donut already in mass production: Raspberry Danish, Coffee and Doughnut, and Beignet. These flavours aren’t available for consumers to buy, but the company has made small batches of them and sent them out into the world.

Darren Seifer, an industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company, said Thursday that companies need to be cautious when offering consumers a new product that’s too similar to the original.

“Any time you have a line extension, your main concern should be whether or not it’s going to be cannibalizing your main-line product,” he said.

Oreo’s social media push, he added, could be interpreted as an effort to save on market research funds — which other companies certainly have done, he said.

Firework Oreos in New York

“Instead of going and spending lots of money on focus groups and taste testing, they’re almost using the power of social media to help them out figure out what’s the next road and what’s the next big thing,” he said.

And while Oreo has taken to crowdsourcing, it’s not necessarily breaking new ground there.

From 2006 to 2016, Frito-Lay received around 36,000 submissions for its Crash the Super Bowl contest; fans were asked to create homemade Doritos commercials. Each year, the winning fan-made ad was broadcast during the Super Bowl. Frito-Lay awarded nearly US$7 million in prize money during that time.

In 2014, Starbucks asked customers to decorate their Starbucks cup with an original design for its White Cup Contest. Participants then posted a photo of the cup on social media with the hashtag #WhiteCupContest, and the winning design was used on a limited-edition reusable cup. Nearly 4,000 entries were received.

Companies engaging with consumers, though, is a relatively recent development, said Libby O’Connell, chief historian emeritus at the History Channel who wrote the book “The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites.”

Aside from adding little surprises in packages, as with Cracker Jack, “they really couldn’t do that a 100 years ago.”

But not everyone is thrilled with the evolution of Oreo. One flavour, Watermelon, was widely seen as a flop when it was released in 2013. A food industry expert told U.S. News & World Report that the cookie left an unpleasant aftertaste and only vaguely tasted like watermelon.

In a 2016 post on The Ringer, after Oreo came out with a Swedish Fish flavour, Justin Charity argued that the company had gone too far.

In an interview, Charity — who said he was conditioned to love Oreos because his schools were near a Nabisco factory — doubled down on his perspective. “I feel like, ‘Why is Nabisco trying to overwhelm you with meaningless choices?'” he said.

The whole effort is “a parody of diminishing returns,” he added.

“We lost the platonic ideal of what an Oreo cookie is. What is an Oreo anymore? I don’t even know.”

The New York Times