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Sensory Innovation in a Cost-Cutting Mode?Sensory Innovation in a Cost-Cutting Mode?

June 1, 2004

7 Min Read
Sensory Innovation in a Cost-Cutting Mode?

Throughout the food industry, the pressure is on to spin fiber into gold and cash in on the low-carb craze that's sweeping the country. It's the latest, but not the last, straw for frustrated marketing, R&D, and front-line staff who have been locked into resource-squeezed productivity agendas. It's no surprise that a number of new products, including low-carb entries, developed under these conditions clearly do not deliver on their promises. While many factors contribute to product failure, adding the right sensory analysis at the right time can increase the chances for success.

Bottom-line development

It takes a lot for a product to succeed. Phil Lempert's March 24, 2004, online newsletter, "Supermarket Guru" (www. supermarketguru.com), points out that, of the 30,000 new products that were introduced in 2003, less than 5% were real hits. Historically, fewer than 10% are still on the shelves three years after launch.

Robert G. Cooper and Scott J. Edgett, principals of the Product Development Institute (PDI), Ancaster, Ontario, are best known for Stage-Gate and portfolio strategies for new product development. They point to the significant gap between resources required and new product development resources available as the cause of this high percentage of failures.

In "Overcoming the Current Crunch in NPD Resources" (PDI, 2003), the authors quote a senior project leader: "With seven major projects underway, on top of an already busy 'day job,' I'm being set up for failure ... There just isn't enough time to do what needs to be done to ensure that these projects are executed the way they should be ... So I cut corners."

A lack of focus and inadequate resources are the No. 1 weaknesses in new product development, Cooper and Edgett report, citing a major 2003 study by the American Productivity and Quality Center, Houston, TX. The study showed that poor quality of execution existed from ideas through launch, ultimately resulting in serious new product development costs. In the name of efficiency, there was little or no front-end investment to identify and evaluate risks and opportunities. It isn't hard to see why people who manage limited R&D budgets hedge their bets with small, low-risk projects rather than go all-out to launch a daring, big idea.

Innovation for better NPD

"Right now, we're just starting to emerge from an economic and idea recession, a protracted hunkering-down phase. But the signs are starting to point to the return of an idea phase. We're seeing some growth in the economy, and people are talking about innovation again," says Tom Davenport, business guru and professor of information technology and management at Babson College, Babson Park, MA, in the March 2004 issue of Fast Company.

My experience, however, is that the food industry is slow to follow suit. Food Marketing Support Services (FMSS), Inc., Oak Park, IL, provides sensory-based contract food product design and development services to Fortune 500 companies. According to one long-time client, "The innovation that helped us rise above much of the industry just isn't there as it has been in the past." While requests related to new product development have increased, sign-offs are frequently delayed or postponed. The dollar requests on the innovation side are still very lean.

Cost cutting does not lead to growth. Innovation leads to growth in profits and shareholder value. The market is flat. We desperately need innovation -- but attempting innovation in a cost-cutting mode does little more than maintain, reframe or rename the same stuff that's already out there. True innovation requires a quest for remarkable, original products, says Seth Godwin, author of "Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Becoming Remarkable."

Jacqueline Beckley, president and founder of The Understanding & Insight Group (U&I), Denville, NJ, contends that consumer research focus is shifting from "what do you like?" to "what do you want?" Godwin knows this. "In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible," he contends, advising developers and designers to forget boring brown cows -- go for a big purple heifer.

The best example of the "I want" phenomenon is the current demand for low-carb products that has food developers jumping. I forecast that, as more and better products in this category become available, we'll see consumers searching for flavors and textures they like. They may buy a purple cow simply because of its color, but if it doesn't deliver on its promises, that will be the last one they'll buy, and they'll tell their friends about it, too. Add "quality deliverables" to the list of success factors.

The sensory advantage

Whether it's liking or wanting, descriptive sensory panels can precisely identify why consumers want what they want. Intuitive sensory professionals can translate that information into precise directives that may include ingredient options or process modifications that can be used by R&D scientists to create innovative prototypes.

Descriptive sensory, combined with consumer acceptance data, is a powerful innovation tool. Using combined methods to map the existing product space can identify opportunities for innovation. Once the gaps are sighted, innovative possibilities "explode." Using descriptive fundamentals, FMSS and Givaudan Flavors, Cincinnati, participated in a sensory exploration of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Cuban communities to identify sensory themes. Could we make a Latino purple cow? A purple salsa? A purple mojito?

Sensory-based innovators understand Godwin's call for originality, passion, guts and daring in the quest for exciting new product ideas. Throughout the development process, at each Stage-Gate and Go/Kill Point, sensory professionals define criteria and participate in decisions that maximize opportunities and minimize risks.

The right thing right

There's a big difference between doing the right thing and doing things right! Descriptive sensory methodology, compromised by budgetary constraints, can impede success and can create costly errors. Like the overworked project leader previously quoted, members of bare-bones internal sensory departments strain to do all that is required of them as companies minimize sensory departments. For example, an amateur team can be trained to discriminate "sour." They may not, however, be able to discriminate what type of sour, such as lactic acid, butyric acid or citric acid. They may not be able to decode or distinguish protein-based sour degradation or articulate the nuances of related mouth-and-nose sensations. How can a product developer make an efficient and timely correction with limited direction? Inadequate sensory resources affect levels of descriptive sophistication.

"Doing it right" requires more than knowing sensory methodology. "To be effective, sensory people need to be strategic thinkers who are highly tactical," says Beckley. Her company, U&I, integrates product, sensory, consumer, competitive and market information to address business issues related to business, product and strategic development. "What good is a sensory panel that takes apart the engine and dumps the pieces on the food scientist's table with no explanations or instructions?" she asks. The scientist's response may be, "It's not my job to put it back together" or, more often, "Why should I try to put this engine back together when it's easier to make my own?" A good sensory leader will match the panel approach to the research objective. Highly diagnostic data, useful to developers, requires a sophisticated panel. Investment in levels of sensory sophistication up-front will minimize remedial costs.

Turn ideas into gold

A great deal is being written about impending innovation resurgence. There's concern about timing, about efficiency and effectiveness in a conservative business venue, about generating ideas that will differentiate players and gain support in the marketplace, and about strategies on how to do it all.

None of the projections or proposals I've read mention sensory science, yet I see so many ways sensory can facilitate the innovation process! Descriptive sensory language combines the aesthetic of art with the specifics of science. Good sensory work is "actionable," bridging from one step of product development to the next, developing and maintaining a focused plan. Achieving this kind of symbiotic process depends on professionals who will take a deep dive into their methodologies and come up with ways to collaborate with team members across the development spectrum.

It's time to leave behind the "lock 'em in a room with 24 hours and a stingy budget to work a million-dollar miracle." Instead, listen to the real-life stories of seasoned sensory professionals who guide strategies to create purple cows. Listen to Howard Moskowitz, Gail Civille, Dana Craig-Petsinger, Barbara Booth, Kathleen Rutledge and this author. Find the sensory innovators who can help you spin ideas into gold.

Nancy C. Rodriguez is a sensory specialist and president of Food Marketing Support Services, Inc. (www.fmssinc.com), Oak Park, IL. The company staff includes creative and experienced descriptive sensory panelists, food scientists, registered dietitians and a writer-in-residence, Anne Hunt, who contributed to this article

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