Top 10 rules for product development

Picture of Dr Wayne Morley, Head of Food Innovation, Leatherhead Food ResearchMany books have been written and training courses delivered on how to conduct product development. Indeed we offer such courses here at Leatherhead, from Innovation Management – Key Principles and Best Practice , to A Complete Guide to Product Development. As with many things, however, there is no substitute for experience and in this article, Dr Wayne Morley, Head of Food Innovation, describes his top 10 rules for product development. The first 4 are all concerned with tasting the products; rules 5 to 7 are concerned with how to communicate effectively with colleagues in other functions, especially marketing; and rules 8 to 10 are all concerned with external factors that can affect the success of your product in the market place.

Rule 1 – Always taste your own products
This is an obvious one but how can you expect others to eat your food if you don’t do so yourself? Tasting sessions are an integral part of product development and you should taste and retaste continuously. You can also ask your colleagues to taste and give an opinion. A former colleague of mine was working on a well-known brand of beef stock cubes yet was a vegetarian! So he couldn’t taste the products and had to rely on others.

Rule 2 – Taste the product with the appropriate host food
It is so easy when developing food products to just have a quick taste straight out of the bottle or jar. This of course is not how the consumer will taste the product so it is important to take the time to prepare a host food. For example a well-known chicken casserole sauce is manufactured using acid pasteurisation technology and is therefore acidic when tasted neat and cold. On cooking, however, the acids are buffered by the proteins in the chicken resulting in a much more neutral tasting sauce. So you need to continue the development of the sauces based on the results of tasting chicken casseroles. Equally important is to select the correct host food. Pasta sauces are sold around the world but in some markets, such as the UK, the most important application is lasagne rather than pasta. These two host foods are cooked in very different ways so in reality you may need to do both.

Rule 3 – Taste the product neat
Even taking the advice in rule 2 into account, it is also important to taste the product neat. This is because the host food can often hide small differences in product quality which may be more noticeable with the neat product. A good example of this is in the reduction by ‘stealth’ of ingredients such as salt and sugar. A single small reduction may not be noticeable by consumers but may not be appropriate if carried out several times to result in a product quality which is very different to the original. A tasting of the neat product may make the change more noticeable thereby ruling it out.

Rule 4 – Taste the product 3 times
This rule was applied by a former colleague in his dealing with Marketing. It is often the case that a ‘tweak’ to the formulation is requested following a product tasting. However, if you are convinced that the product meets the brief then why not present the same product again at the next tasting? And only make the requested change if the product is rejected 3 times. Of course each time present the product as a new version and perhaps include an obviously unacceptable alternative so that a choice can be made!

Rule 5 – Let the products do the talking

After spending months developing and perfecting your new product comes the most difficult task of all - convincing your senior management colleagues to proceed to launch. And, even after sorting out the supply chain and hitting the right margin, there’s always the chance that someone will taste the product and not like it. On one occasion this happened to me: a Marketing Director tasted a reduced-fat product and decided that it wasn’t as good as the existing one. So I arranged an impromptu blind tasting session with 3 samples of each product. He got all of them wrong and my launch was saved as he was forced to agree that the reduced-fat product was better. So have faith in your product and don’t be afraid to use it to make your point.

Rule 6 – Get close to marketing
Perhaps this should read ‘Get close to your Marketeer’ as the relationship with the marketing function is the most important one for a product developer. Regular contact and tasting sessions are vital, and don’t be afraid to comment on the marketing messages and on-pack information that is being developed. Product developers are consumers too! And although marketing represent the consumer interests, your Marketeer may not be the target audience for your product. Once, I was developing a Chinese variant of a product and at each tasting session my Marketeer complained that it was too spicy. Each time I reminded her that she didn’t like spicy food and so the development moved on.

Rule 7 – Use scientific data selectively
As technical people we love data, and the more the better. However, it doesn’t cut much ice with non-technical people who may only believe what they can see and taste for themselves. Of course, when developing products you need to analyse them thoroughly in order to set specifications and define the quality control procedures, but careful use of selected data can also be important in other ways. Some years ago I was involved in transferring a product to a new factory and I conducted regular tasting sessions with marketing to ensure that the product quality was acceptable. On one occasion the product was judged to be less salty than the reference so I agreed with my Marketeer to measure the salt content and approve the product if it was within the salt specification range. Of course it was and the project continued.

Rule 8 – Consider the factory and supply chain
The start of any product development exercise is likely to be in the kitchen or development laboratory and at this point the factory can seem a long way away. Indeed your supply chain colleagues may not have even decided which factory will eventually manufacture your product. It is important however to at least think about the likely factory unit operations that may eventually apply and design some robustness into your products at an early stage. For example heat transfer is much less efficient in a factory processing vessel than in a saucepan, so it may be worth heating up the product slowly and quickly to see if the resulting product quality is different.

The supply chain from the factory to the supermarket shelf will also influence the product quality. If you’re worried that transportation may cause some product instability, then you can carry out a simple shake test in the laboratory to simulate this. And a few temperature cycles on your kitchen product would not go amiss either.

Rule 9 – Be an ambassador for your product
You will have spent hours, or perhaps days, in the kitchen, laboratory, pilot plant and factory developing your product so nobody will be more committed than you to the success of your product. And, of course, if the product is not on the supermarket shelf then nobody can buy it. So my advice is to check your local supermarkets soon after launch. If your product is missing then ask for it – of course you will then have to buy a pack but this is no problem as it tastes so good! If you see a damaged or dirty pack on the shelf then buy it yourself rather than leaving it for someone else to complain about. You can investigate the issue in your own time rather than being panicked by your colleagues in the quality department!

Finally, you must protect your product against attempts to ruin the quality through cost-savings. It is likely that the margin at launch will not be at the level required by your colleagues in finance, but changing it too early may mean that the consumers will not return. So proceed cautiously.

Rule 10 – Be careful with ingredients
It’s very convenient when developing a product to nip down to the supermarket to buy your new ingredients. This is fine at the early stages when you are coming up with the chef’s quality benchmark, but you will quickly need to revert to industrial ingredients that will eventually find their way into the factory. The supermarket versions may be of variable specification and not available in suitable quantities for large-scale production, so use them with caution.

Finally, you must consider the markets that your product will be sold in at an early stage of the project. The ingredients you select must of course be legally allowed in all of the markets that you intend selling your product in, so it may be necessary to switch from one ingredient type to another in order to future-proof your product.


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