NEW YORK: Brand owners like Frito-Lay, Gilt Groupe and Walmart are turning to social media insights to develop new products and engage consumers, part of a growing trend of leveraging big data.

Frito-Lay, PepsiCo's potato chip range, is currently asking Facebook users visiting its brand page to suggest and pick proposed new flavours, such as churros and beer-battered onion-rings.

"It's a new way of getting consumer research," Ann Mukherjee, chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America, told the New York Times. "We're going to get a ton of new ideas."

Facebook has changed its "Like" button to read "I'd Eat That" so members can vote in this contest. Frito-Lay will ultimately make three flavours, and assess the viability of other entries. "This is a real competitive edge for us," said Mukherjee.

Gilt Groupe, the online fashion retailer, regularly requests that buyers choose which offerings to include in sales, and holds Facebook "chats" between engineers and shoppers to better meet their needs.

"It tells us exactly what customers are interested in," Elizabeth Francis, chief marketing officer at the Gilt Groupe, said. "It's amazing that we can get that kind of real feedback, as opposed to speculating."

Wal-Mart, the hypermarket giant, purchased social media analytics company Kosmix for $300m in 2011, renaming it @WalmartLabs. The research it conducts helps the firm select where to sell merchandise.

It thus rolled out own-label spicy chips and Doritos' Dinamita in the southwest and California after discovering Takis, a similar line, had proved highly popular. "Cake pops", small pieces of cake on lollipop sticks, underwent a similar process.

"Starbucks had just started getting them in their cafes, and people were talking a lot about it," Ravi Raj, @WalmartLabs' vice president for products, said. "There's mountains and mountains of data being created in social media."

MicroStrategy, the software group, has built a permission-based Facebook app allowing it to mine 13m private accounts on the social network, covering everything from job titles to likely earnings.

"This is like the biggest focus group someone could ever imagine," said Mark LaRow, the firm's senior vice president for products.

However, Lara Lee, chief innovation and operating officer at Continuum, a design consultancy, sounded a note of warning. "Data can't tell you where the world is headed," she said.

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by Warc staff