Walkers is taking on the likes of Kettle and Tyrrells with its new premium brand Red Sky. But is it a smart move or a brand too far? Nick Hughes reports

Any sportsman will tell you the smartest tactic is the one your opponent is least expecting. Walkers will be hoping the principle extends to grocery.

It's launch of a premium crisp brand, Red Sky, in the midst of recession is a bold move. But will it prove a stroke of genius or a spectacular own goal?

"Our testing shows Red Sky to be a superior product with potential to broaden the appeal of the premium crisp category," trumpets Ian Ellington, Walkers vice president of marketing.

Jamie Rice, marketing director at RTS Resource, endorses Ellington's opinion that there is potential to add value at the premium end. "Consumers are looking for new flavours and with the trend toward treating themselves at home rather than going out, there is logic in adding a premium brand. Walkers now has all bases covered."

Walkers has already flirted with premium with its Sensations brand, which Rice says is positioned just below leading premium brand Kettle Chips, sales of which soared 24.9% in 2008 (Nielsen). But sales of Sensations rose just 0.4% last year, prompting a major relaunch in January .

Red Sky is Walkers' attempt to combat the increasing polarisation of the crisps market, which has contributed to Sensations poor performance, says Jonty White, director of Burts Chips.

"The trouble with Sensations is that it operates in the struggling middle ground. Consumers seem to either want premium or value and anything that falls in between is suffering. By launching into this category, Red Sky is directly targeting our business and Kettle Chips."

Walkers' name is conspicuous in its absence from the packaging. Rice believes it's a sensible move to position Red Sky away from the main Walkers brands . " Were Red Sky to use the Walkers name, it could risk taking brand-loyal consumers away from Sensations."

Dragon brand consultant Pippa Nordberg, however, believes concerns over credibility lie behind Walkers' decision to omit its name. "As Sensations have shown, consumers struggle with the notion of a brand that can deliver Builder's Breakfast at the same time as Thai Sweet Chilli. The fact that the parent brand doesn't appear on front-of-pack suggests Walkers shares consumers' doubt."

Indeed, all the evidence points to Walkers distancing Red Sky from the core brand. For starters there is the design , which is strikingly similar to that of its premium rivals. With deep, rustic colours and flavours such as West Country Bacon and Anglesey Sea Salt, the brand attempts to tap into the trends for natural and, most explicitly, British, that has proved so successful for the likes of Tyrrells.

Nordberg worries that, on this count, Walkers may have missed the boat. "It has moved in the right direction, but perhaps not far enough. The brand name is interesting - a neat idea to link to 'nature's promise of a good day', but is backed only by a claim of 100% natural ingredients - hardly radical or motivating in today's market.

Walkers has also attempted to tick the ethical box. For every 150g bag of Red Sky sold, 10ft of endangered rainforest will be protected through the charity Cool Earth. Again, the question of credibility rears its head. "Burts donates to charity but we feel no need to broadcast it," says White. "Why is Walkers restricting this pledge to just its new range? If it had such strong eco-credentials wouldn't it run this partnership across its main brand too? "

Walkers' motives and timing may be open to scrutiny but Nordberg reinforces the fact that current market trends are in their favour. "There is a clear belief that staying in is the new going out and premium crisps can clearly play a role in this. There has been no significant innovation in the premium crisps category since Tyrrells, so consumers may be ready for something new."