Consumer Trends in 2020: Driving New Priorities in Ingredient Innovation Panel discussion write up
Simon Norman, Head of Product Development – Food and Beverage – Leatherhead Food Research
Carla Hilhorst, EVP R&D Foods & Refreshment, Unilever
Michele Fite, CCO, Motif Food Works
Following Simon’s presentation, he was asked a couple of specific questions:
Are all ingredients natural and how do you deal with the perception that the products are not all natural?
A lot of organisations and teams struggle with this when looking at looking at natural product technologies. For example, this can apply to ingredient technologies which allow for seemingly clean label, such as “celery salt” instead of nitrates; “beetroot extract” instead of haem (for bleeding burgers); and “pomegranate extract” instead of antibacterial additives.
It can also be dependent on different cultures and what is perceived as natural within them: for some countries ‘natural’ will mean one thing, while for others, something else. This is why it’s really important to go back to regulation and labelling, based on country.
Therefore, it’s important to consider all of this when developing products – especially at the beginning where perception and permission is key to consumer buy-in.
When developing new methods to produce foods, at what stage of the product development do companies start addressing regulatory requirements around food safety?
There are a lot of different aspects of regulation that need to be brought into product development at different times.
But in reality, and from my experience, food safety is usually relatively late in the product development process. It’s not so much a core product development task, as it is a support one; for example, we run food safety screens before doing sensory trials.
Sometimes food safety is a core challenge – for example, looking for preservation technologies - but food safety challenges can usually be overcome by reaching into a toolset of options from formulation, process, and packaging.
So, question number one is always going to be: functionally, can I sell this and do so in the place I want to take it to market?
Some of this relates to food safety, supply chain capability and management, hitting the shelf-life of the product, as well as how regulation differs around the world. Picking a test market to see if there is interest in the new product before developing it and potentially rolling it out globally is a key approach for many organisations – and a sensible one.
But I believe that the smart product developer is one that thinks about a harmonised approach: what is the minimum amount of change I’m willing to do next year to support this product I’m developing right now?
A panel discussion hosted by Simon Norman, Head of Product Development – Food and Beverage, Leatherhead Food Research, and with Carla Hilhorst, EVP R&D Foods & Refreshment, Unilever, and Michele Fite, CCO, Motif Food Works
Do you think there’s a kick-back coming from consumers about labelling and the appearance of plant-based foods as not clean-label?
Michele, Motif: We’ve done a lot of research in this area and what we’re finding is that the over-riding values for the consumers in this space are: health, environmental benefits and animal welfare. And this is what they’re looking for on labels and how they’re being driven by these criteria.
Interestingly, our research is also showing that clean label will fall much lower in consumer criteria when compared with these others.
Consumers are willing to accept science and technology to gain those benefits of animal free as long as they deliver on improved health – which is the primary promise of plant-based food – environmental benefits, and improved animal welfare.
Carla, Unilever: As long as a label that looks a little more processed is delivering a benefit to consumers, they will accept it. The moment an alternative offering comes on to the market, which is as good, but with a cleaner label, I think that product will have a differentiation and an advantage.
Therefore, and this is particularly relevant however, is if there’s a huge benefit, consumers are willing to sacrifice the clean label element.
Simon, Leatherhead Food Research: I suspect that there are differing levels of importance here: at a certain point, the benefits of a plant-based food can be outweighed by the negative impacts of ingredient choices; for example, sustainability perceptions of palm oil.
We should be careful that when we’re creating a new plant-based burger, for instance, that we live up to the consumer expectation that the product is healthier for them, and better for the planet than a normal beef-burger. Being a plant-based food shouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail card for unhealthy or environmentally suspect ingredient use.
With regards to products with purpose, can you tell us a little more about the process you went through internally to define and articulate your mission statements in order to achieve your sustainability goals?
Carla, Unilever: It’s a huge process you go through with a brand and, to be fair, we did have examples where we thought we had defined the purpose, but the consumer didn’t recognise it or we were not sharp enough.
So, it really has to be something that fits the brand and that resonates and is credible with the company and the products it sells.
You need to look at it end-to-end, but it is a journey and is also something that is being sharpened over time.
Michele, Motif: As a newer brand in the animal-free space, we are working very hard to ensure that the products we deliver are right in the place of helping our customers ensure they can deliver on their sustainability goals.
We want to ensure our products deliver on that promise of being animal-free which allows that plant-based formulation to improve on sustainability and environmental promises that the consumer is looking for in that product.
Carla, Unilever: What’s really important is that if a brand has defined a certain purpose – what we call “the brand say and the brand do” – and that these are actually aligned with each other, otherwise it becomes an empty promise and consumers simply won’t believe you.
The moment you have a purpose identified you need to go to the ‘product truth’. So, if we want to deliver on the purpose, what are the actual elements within the product that we want to deliver on. And then you start driving and tracking that and, in our case, translating that to the technical challenges.
Simon, Leatherhead Food Research: A lot of the brand-identities that are defined by marketing teams can seem remote from the reality of product development, and often at odds with a drive to creating a high-quality product at the right price point with the right margins. From a marketing perspective, having a clear and globally conscious mission statement is a winning strategy for a new brand, but more than that, it’s one of the key things which attract top R&D talent to a new job.
What does R&D look like in COVID-19 world?
Michele, Motif: As a start-up it’s been challenging, but exciting, to see the creativity and the innovation around how we’re actually going to get our work done.
We actually got labs built in our homes so people could get some work done. We also found ways to get partnered labs in our employees’ locations that weren’t shut down so our individuals could work there.
We used our connections and networks, even going into other countries to create a ‘scientific network’ that helped keep us up and running, and out technology and innovation moving forward.
Our biggest adoption was on the technical side, but we have been able to stay connected through the technical capability available and our consumers have adapted so quickly to this new world as well.
Carla, Unilever: I recognise a lot in what was just said. With our R&D labs, the way we approached it was to go to zero and then started to build it up a little bit based on what was required for business continuity.
The supply chain challenge in particular was quite large! And R&D plays a key role when you’re looking to find alternative suppliers or alternative materials. So, we had to keep our labs up and running but we did that at a minimum level. It allowed us to understand what works and what we could do in a safe way.
We are currently ramping it up in those countries where the lockdown is easing.
But we saw things like virtual factory trials, people finding very creative ways of tasting products, of shooting videos in their house, and connecting together.
It was beautiful to see how creative people were: I was very impressed!
Simon, Leatherhead Food Research: One of our challenges has been maintaining the sensory and consumer insights team with a fast turnaround and the close working relationship we want to foster with our product development scientists.
Our development labs have remained open throughout the crisis, with strict distancing and occupancy requirements, but it’s much more challenging to allow “random” consumers into our buildings for panels – our team have been amazing at adapting quickly to facilitating sensory panels and consumer insights sessions remotely.
I think there are some real opportunities now to get new methods of working embedded in consumer insights teams which ultimately will lead to a closer relationship between brands and their insights panels.
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