Opinion: Food innovators need to learn to use the C-word

First published on Choose Brisbane

It’s a fair assumption that the folks at retail giant Amazon know a thing or two about innovation. Interestingly, the company’s high-profile chief executive, Jeff Bezos, still brings their complex and intertwining businesses back to one simple – and key – aspect: “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

focusing your innovation efforts on your customers is key

A simple sentiment, sure, but it’s one constantly lost in the rigmarole of concept creation, research, product finessing and commercialisation. But in the simplest of terms, the most effective way to innovate within and even disrupt the food industry is to provide your customers with something they want or need, and can’t get.

That key juncture in your product or innovation development cycle is often the “aha moment” of truly, authentically and authoritatively understanding what your customers want or need – but it’s easier said than done.

Ben Doolan, a director of Brisbane food innovation business FivePointFour, says constant contact with consumers and regular surveys helped determine his company’s food products – highly tailored meal plans – from the get-go.

“After the concept phase, we shaped our product offering through various questionnaires, online promotions for feedback and of course, social media platforms,” Doolan says.

“As we started off quite small, it was easy for me to literally contact each person or see them face to face to gather their thoughts and recommendations.”

The history of the food industry is littered with innovative ideas that didn’t resonate with the market and failed, so how can you avoid joining this list of case studies?

How valuable are customer conversations?
You could ask your customers what they need or want but this relies on an assumption – that they know what they want or what’s possible.

Innovation is most effective when people with technical insights and subject matter expertise are able to make a leap in thinking.

Developing breakthrough insights is not easy and nothing beats simply spending time with customers.  The old adage of “walking a mile in their shoes” still applies. Developing true customer empathy will give you the perspective you need to develop great solutions for them, but you still need a few tools to help with the process.

FivePointFour’s Doolan says: “There are so many different avenues we look at when deciding on product lines. First and foremost, we listen to our customers (current and past).”

“Our administration staff are incredibly good at keeping in touch with our customers and passing on their suggestions and interests. We do surveys through social media platforms which have been integral through the creation of our vegan range. And that’s the only one to be high protein with low sugar and low calorie, Australia-wide – insights taken from our conversations.”

Some of the more widely used tools to develop customer empathy and understand their experiences are empathy and experience maps.

Stanford University’s Design School has excellent versions of both mapping tools (empathy map and experience or journey map).  Spending time with your customers using these tools helps you uncover what customers are likely to say, think, feel and do and will help identify pain and gain points.  Armed with these insights, you can then begin to work on solutions to food problems they might not even realise exist.

Take the customers’ thoughts, then multiply
Truly innovative new food products will take multiple customer-led insights and combine them to compound the value of what is being offered.

Doolan says FivePointFour’s focus didn’t so much as shift but more extrapolated after research delivered some healthy data about their core customer.

“The key audience was initially men looking to increase lean muscle mass,” he says.

“This was apparent as there was nothing else like it on the Australian market. Since that thought, we conducted further research and the result clarified our consumers’ intent further, and we realised our most receptive market was actually the everyday male and female who were time poor, health conscious and leading a busy work-life.”

“The biggest challenge about this is then scaling up and keeping everyone happy (staff and customers). The issues around food quality, production and back end distribution are just crazy when you’re growing at a rapid rate.”

“It can all be a little crazy. As my business partner and I say, ‘We like to build the plane while we’re already flying.’ Thankfully, we are on top of this now.”

Another example is when Australian company Gourmet Garden – which has a farm facility just up the Bruce Highway at Palmwood – developed a new innovative way of preserving herbs – they didn’t just stop there.

The product, which they call “lightly dried” herbs, was combined with other innovations.  After observing and understanding their customers at a deep level, Gourmet Garden developed new packaging formats, pricing models and support offerings for a richer cooking experience.

The new product offered extended life with the look, aroma and flavour of fresh herbs in a range of packaging solutions, supported by a variety of online recipes and has been a great success for the company.

There are tools to help identify areas for multiple innovation that extend beyond the product offering.  Tools like Doblin’s ten types of innovation can help food businesses examine other potential areas to innovate, including the configuration of your food business and your customer experience (including the brand experience).

The crucial thing for food innovators is to focus on a customer-led approach to uncover insights. Try to identify multiple, connected innovation opportunities and work them into a consolidated, single offering. It takes time and discipline, but the value created can be multiple orders of magnitude higher.

Interested in exploring innovation at your company? Connect with Brandon Miller, Wiley’s Innovation and Strategy Director.