4 Steps to great category inspiration

When I begin a category review process, there are four stages I go through to get to the stable of future product launches and refreshes.   I am going to detail each of these and then bring it together to see how this can create the product differentiation which gives you the product power that we all seek to achieve profitable sales with less stress.

  1. Food trends– the beginning of every year heralds a plethora of food trend information as various magazines, bloggers and other organisations herald the new up and coming foods stuffs we are going to eat.  The more quirky get coverage in the Daily Mail and we in the food industry work out which ones might just be relevant and which will come and go with no impact.  The key subjects of the day at the moment are free from, reducing sugar, nutrient value of vegetables.

We use the food people (www.thefoodpeople.co.uk) for our key source of trends as they provide a great service both generically and also bespoke for specific market challenges.  We then look at their data and review what is going on in our market and related markets – when working on sushi new concepts, we often go and look at what the high end chocolate retailers are doing as their packaging and merchandising are very akin to our own.

The biggest challenge in mature food markets is to find the next big thing – coleslaw is the biggest selling pot salad, salmon nigiri the most popular sushi piece, cottage pie best selling ready meal – how do you get the inspiration to find other products that the customer will embrace.  Food safaris are a great source of knowledge but its important to take advice on where to go – companies like www.npddirect.com can be really helpful.  Going to Japan does not find the most innovative sushi nor does Italy generate the best ideas for pizzas.

  1. Customer research

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning” – Bill Gates

Understanding why your customers don’t buy is a great source of new concepts.  At Ichiban our research showed that customers didn’t like the nori (black seaweed) that is found in a lot of our products.  We came across a company in the US who make wraps for sushi from vegetables and fruit and after a lot of hard work making them work in the factory we launched them two years ago.  The innovation won us Food manufacture SME innovation of the year 2014.

I always think the washing power guys understand their customers- whiter whites were key 30 years ago and now we all want our colours to be maintained especially black.  There is a massive push on fragrance with Febreze and Lenorunstoppables that give 9x more fragrance that fabric conditioner alone!  A scary concept but I am sure it is not too over powering.

So how do you find out what the customer wants?  Ask them! There are several approaches that we use to get to the heart of the customer.

  1. Surveys – we wanted to know if customers use the chopsticks that we put in the packs – so we ran an omnibus study (www.tnsglobal.co.uk/tns-direct/omnibus) which gave us some great feedback on when people eat sushi, whether they use the ginger and yes only 25% use the chopsticks.
  2. Published data – in the food industry we have always been a bit wary of published data such as Mintel as it is more generic but it can be useful for getting an overview of a new category that you may feel the brand will extend into.  It is also possible to buy Kantar, Nielsen and other data but can be a challenge if you are in a very small category or in one like food to go which is difficult to read.  My frustration also is that once you have bought the data you are not allowed to share it with the customer which kind of reduces its usefulness as an influencing tool.
  3. Ad hoc research – for understanding what the customer thinks they want, this is invaluable.  This can be either group work, at fixture in depth interviews or accompanied shops.  It enables you to pick the target audience very specifically and tailor feedback to your needs.  It can be expensive and also people often don’t really do what they say they are going to do. The most illuminating work I have done recently has been with non purchasers who either reject the product or the retailer that I have been working with.  This gives massive insights into their perceptions of product, category and retailer offer although the latter is difficult to influence as it is the overall retailer brand they have issue with.
  4. Sales data – I know that sales data represents what has gone before and therefore not a predictor of the future but never underestimate what you already know from your sales figures especially if you have access to the powerful retailers databases.  Plus of course there is loyalty card data such as Dunn Humby and Nectar data which can provide a lot of in depth information but at a price!
  5. Social media – this is a great source of immediate feedback to your products and particularly useful for brands – It is important to respond to criticism as well as positive feedback quickly. Your loyal followers will feedback on new concepts and marketing – either publically or part of an offline ad hoc review.
  1. Old fashioned idea generation

I have always worked with my teams using brainstorming or other such techniques to randomly come up with new product concepts.  If it is well chaired and the “no idea is a bad idea!” mantra is adhered to then it can provide a great list of ideas and concepts for working on – have a look at www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html

  1. Chefs and others – new recipes, packaging etc

Once the research has been done, macro concepts identified, then there is a great opportunity to work with your in house chef or bring in someone to inspire and provide new ideas – we use www.binghamandjones.co.uk who have a great background in added value convenience foods and really come up with some great concepts and tasty food to boot!

Also work with your packaging suppliers to find new ways to package products – the use of straight on trays for improving the visuals of pizzas, cooked meats and yes sushi delivered massive uplift in sales and brought new customers to the categories as they could see the products stimulating purchase.

So that’s a little overview of how to get to the customer needs and drivers and find out what will convince them to buy more – clearly the product needs to be viable and cost effective and in the third article of this series, we will look at how to assess feasibility and to get a product that the customer and consumer will pay for.

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