OPINION28 May 2012

Why we don’t have strawberry flavoured crisps

I spent a day last week at the MRS Food and Drink Conference and there was some really interesting stuff there about shaking things up and doing things differently, including a case-study from Pepsico Snacks and MMR on new innovation approaches and the need to match concepts with products early in the process. This, and the unsettling experience that I will recount below, got me thinking about just how far food brands should go with product innovation.

Clearly a key issue in the food industry is how to achieve growth in stagnant developed markets. Take, for example, Mr Kipling – that most quintessentially British cake brand. If you’ve maximised your share of the teatime cake market, how do you get yourself “out of the cake-tin” and create new opportunities for current consumers to eat cake; to tap into those people who don’t do teatime (i.e. younger people) and who might eat cake at some other time if only they had the opportunity?

Mr Kipling’s new branding, which has been rolling out since January, is really good. It taps in to the retro zeitgeist and is perfectly timed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the London Olympics and a celebration of all things British. And with the creation of a snap-pack format it’s not only increasing its market share in the teatime cake market but it has launched itself into the snack market. As brand director Michelle Wilde put it: “A slice of cake when you least expect it can bring a moment of joy to your day.”

It’s the same story with the Special K Challenge: if you’re maxed out in the breakfast market, why not get people to eat cereal at lunch or dinnertime? You could double your market overnight! Now, for me, there’s something a bit studenty about eating cereal for breakfast, lunch and tea but the prospect of dropping a jean size in just two weeks… Well, the growth of Special K sales in recent years and the litany of internet reviews show this had worked.

But while there are great success stories of how brands have re-framed products to create new consumption opportunities, for every winner there’s got to be a loser.

At the conference, we heard a lot about sensory research – looking at the different modalities of food in an objective way then using consumer research to create vocabulary bridges to overlay the consumer’s more emotional/subjective view of it all. For example, when it comes to yellow fats – margarine, butter etc – is salty and creamy a good combo, or is hard and bright a good combo? It’s critical to understand this – it tells you not only what combinations are good but also what’s bad, which is a key consideration when evaluating just how far you can stretch your brand or just how much opportunity there is to create new occasions to partake of your product.

For instance, I love Hellman’s mayonnaise – no other shop-bought mayo will cut it for me. And I feel pretty much the same about Marmite. Nevertheless, there are limits to my adoration. The other day I spotted a serving suggestion on the back of a jar of Hellman’s, “Posh Brownies. Luxuriously rich chocolate brownies. Believe it or not, made with Hellman’s Real mayonnaise. Give them a try,” the pack read.My stomach turned over, my lunch was ruined. Not only am I not going to try this taboo-busting recipe, I’m starting to feel a bit queasy about Hellman’s mayo. How could they even suggest such a thing? Mayo instead of butter in a sandwich – I can buy that. But in baking? No.

As for my mate Marmite, the new XO extra strong version is inspired, but Marmite cereal bars? That idea could only be more repulsive to me if it turned out the cereal bars were made using mayonnaise instead of butter.

Clearly there’s a limit to product extension. The rules are: stick to adjacent categories and don’t cross the savoury/sweet divide – not only is your innovation likely to fail but it’s likely to sully your relationship with the consumer too.