As many of you will know we spend a lot of time in supermarkets, to report on what’s happening in the world of brand building and innovation that we (and our clients) inhabit. But we’re not really reporting on what’s happening, but on what’s already happened.

To get a bit further upstream Steve spent a day at a London conference last week, soaking up insights from brands who’ve cracked the codes and achieved success with recent innovations.

Despite the shockingly low success rates of ‘NPD’ that we hear about at every innovation conference, it’s still true that the most innovative companies nearly always report the highest revenue and profit growth. If you can make your innovation stick, it will contribute to higher margins and improved brand salience and relevance. That’s the kind of win-win we all feel compelled to aim for.

First Fix the Core

Several speakers mentioned the fact that successful innovation is far more likely to come from a brand that has a strong core, and as a result knows what it stands for.

Andrew Elder from Birds Eye was brave enough to show us three past innovations that failed, due to what in hindsight look like basic errors: not serving a burning consumer need, releasing an OK-not-great product, and under-investing in the launch.

Under the ownership of Nomad Foods the company first turned around the decline in its core ranges of frozen vegetables, chicken and fish, renovating the products, the branding, packaging and other distinctive assets, like the sea-captain who advertises their frozen fish range.

Only then was the brand ready to indulge in some aggressive trend-led NPD, not surprisingly focused on the runaway trend in food at the moment – eating less meat. Coupled with the fact that consumers now better understand that freezing food is an effective way to retain its nutritional value, this gave Birds Eye the opportunity to create a brand purpose of ‘helping the nation eat a little more goodness everyday’. And to back it up with a raft of well-supported brand innovations that are sticking.

We’ll return to brand purpose later but let’s get back to Vegans. The term is a kind of brand in itself, and so much cooler than ‘Vegetarian’. ‘Vegan’ sounds a lot less like ‘Librarian’ and more like a sexy alien race out of Star Trek.

Yet as Alex Glen from Quorn Foods informed us, only 2% of the UK population identify as proper (= ethical) Vegans. There are a further 2% who are classified as ‘lifestyle Vegans’ (they’ll be the ones on instagram), 5% Vegetarians, 6% Pescatarians and a whopping 37% who are simply reducing meat consumption without giving it up altogether.

It’s the meat reducers who are responsible for 90% of the category penetration of ‘plant-based’ foods, and their product choices are driven by ‘familiar meals that deliver great taste and texture.’ For a lot of people that means minced ‘meat’, sausages and ‘burgers’, even if the meat lobby succeeds in making us call them ‘discs’.

Familiarity not Fads

This element of successful innovation being rooted in familiarity was strongly reinforced by Camilla Sheeley from Tilda Rice. She reminded us that most of a company’s innovation focus (say 60%) should be about strengthening the existing business, with perhaps 30% stretching brands into new categories or occasions. Unless you’re in a different industry to food & drink it’s probably unwise to spend more than 10% of your time and money on ‘supersede’ innovation, where a new category and consumer behaviour is created. Superseding is also a long game: about 17 years in the case of Nespresso!

Within this framework Camilla offered further guardrails: be on-trend but be aware that you can be too early; ensure that new concepts have ‘baked in’ familiarity; create an engaging, seamless story from brand to product to pack to comms; and always ‘connect to the plate‘ and ‘dial up delicious‘ (taste and texture).

the rice isnt sticky but the innovations are

I’m a big admirer of Tilda’s packaging design system, which fully integrates these principles, as well as another couple that Camilla cited from a study of the world’s most successful innovators (such as Apple, Amazon and Coca-Cola): the ability to embrace change whilst staying true to the central brand idea; and showmanship, executing new ideas with flair and enthusiasm.

Health and Wellbeing

Although it’s been around a long time, there’s no doubt that the #1 trend driving food and drink innovation today is Health & Wellbeing. It continues to build momentum, and it’s setting off wildfires of innovation as it impacts every aspect of how the world will feed itself in the future.

For me the biggest wildfire of them all is Food-Tech, so I’m attending another conference to bring that brave new world into focus next month.

Back at this conference, the insight that struck the loudest chord for me was the way that personal and planetary health have become intertwined. Consumers want to eat food that gives them specific nutritional benefits, but according to Kyrsten Halley of Ryvita they more often articulate an overarching need such as ‘general wellbeing’ or ‘feeling good about myself’.

This feel-good requirement often relates to environmental concerns, captured in the sentiment: “If it’s not good for the planet then how can it be good for me?”

With 65% of UK consumers ‘trying to live a more ethical lifestyle’, issues like food waste and plastic packaging pollution are firmly established as worth taking a stand against. Mintel’s 2019 Global Food & Drink Trends report refers to ‘Evergreen Consumption’ to describe the increasingly holistic relationship we will need to have with our food going forward.

just eat

Mintel again: ‘A new generation of modern convenience food and drink is emerging as manufacturers respond to rising healthy-eating priorities, quests for foodie-inspired flavours, interests in personalisation and competition from speedy delivery services. The premium preferences of today’s consumers are advancing demand for more natural, nutritious, or customisable products that help people keep pace with busy schedules, without sacrificing their health goals or curiosity for new ingredients, flavours, or formats’.

If that isn’t ‘having it all’, then I don’t know what is!

Fancy a drink?

Drinks are on a similar path to healthier and more sustainable choices, so we can expect the trend to refillable water bottles and takeaway coffee cups to gather pace, in parallel with both avoidance and more recycling of plastics.

The UK and the rest of the BBC-watching world has been stung into action by the ‘Blue Planet effect’, with consumers shocked by images of wildlife swimming through plastic-infested oceans. We’ve seen similar images before, of course, but we seem to have reached the moment where we’ve finally replaced complacency with a strong desire for action.

In terms of what’s inside the bottles we refill or recycle, our panel of insiders reported on the same trends as foods: a full range of functional benefits please, low or no sugar, low or no alcohol, natural ingredients, exciting flavours and real indulgence; and while you’re at it make it look cool or pretty for my instagram.

less is more but keep it heavy on the pink

Shopping in 5G

As 5G starts to permeate our digital lives, the internet of things (or IoT) that we keep hearing about will suddenly get a lot more real. Every ‘thing’ in our lives will have a high speed internet connection, enabling conversations between your sofa, the TV and the light switch, and so on.

Richard Kelly of adimo showcased an app to ‘make brands shoppable’ from all of the new touchpoints that the IoT will create, and warns that: ‘As customers move from grocery stores to other modes of shopping, brands will need to explore creative new ways of marketing their products.’

An adimo blog post expands: ‘We can safely predict that advertising for FMCG products will migrate from TV and print to our fridges, digital assistants, and phones. Brands will need to find effective and personalized ways of reaching potential customers. If they don’t, it seems likely that Amazon, which is poised to be integrated into all of the smart devices that comprise the IoT, will carve out a dominant market share.

Amazon Go

The success or otherwise of adimo will depend on exactly how ‘frictionless’ this experience turns out to be in practice. Switching between apps is already too much trouble for many of us, once we’ve experienced the euphoria of our first Uber ride.

For an excellent article on the power of frictionless go here.

Innovating the Innovation Process

Not surprisingly the same digital technology that disrupts markets so profoundly is also disrupting innovation processes. Step forward the future of trendwatching in the form of Black Swan Data.

CIIO (that’s Insight and Innovation) Richard Maryniak quickly pointed out that this was not Social Listening, but I think what he really meant was this is not just Social Listening; it’s Social Listening with an algorithm.

More specifically it’s an algorithm that can assign a TPV (Trend Prediction Value) to anything (key words, phrases, ingredients, behaviour, dance moves) that’s being talked about on Social Media. The clever bit is analysing the trajectory of the thing being tracked over time, to understand when it’s moving from an emergent phase into becoming ‘a thing’.

next generation sweetener

Of course like all algorithms the ‘how’ of the process is top secret, but they have been able to tell Unilever when to launch Matcha green tea, and PepsiCo when to add Seaweed or Wasabi to their flavour options on certain products; and why it would be a great idea to reposition LifeWater as a cheaper Fiji water.


Also talking about the innovation of the innovation process were The Value Engineers, one of the pioneers of the off-site 2-day innovation workshop.

As someone who’s experienced quite a few of these in my time, it was refreshing to hear that TVE now subscribe to a whole new approach based on the way the brain actually works. This turns out not to be sitting in a breakout space with a multi-disciplinary team, forcing yourselves to come up with a world-beating innovation in 30 minutes.

Instead they’ve crafted a ‘serendipitous’ methodology that captures (in a collaborative online space) the ideas that people might have in the shower, or on their morning jog. The process is enriched with experiences more than ‘pre-reads’, and allows the space and time for each team member to truly bring their way of thinking, including the introverts who don’t want to put on an Apprentice-winning performance in the presentation phase.

What’s your Purpose?

‘Brand Purpose’ doesn’t sound like Innovation, but it is a hot button that’s going to get hotter than a lab-grown protein-powered Freekeh disc.

For 200 years the world has advanced massively in scientific knowledge, technological progress and wealth creation. As a direct result humans have grown in numbers to 7.6 billion people, all of whom need to be fed, kept warm, moved and dressed.

With the richest billion or so fully engaged in a Consumer Society that is even more demanding of the planet’s resources, we’ve now realised that this success story comes with unanticipated side effects (like global warming, environmental pollution and obesity).

Consumers are increasingly asking the corporations that serve our desires to find a way of doing so without further harming the planet. The functional and emotional benefits of the end product are still important, but the functional and emotional benefits of why and howbrands make their products is now almost as important.

Despite having been owned by Unilever for nearly two decades, Ben & Jerry’s has remained true to the purpose of its Founders. This goes well beyond making products responsibly, but also actively campaigning and rallying consumer support for social, economic and environmental justice.

Ben and Jerrys

This is not something that a traditionally managed ‘Brand as Shareholder Value Creator’ can simply slip into. As European Managing Director Anuradha Chugh informed the conference, self-proclaimed ‘Purpose’ brands easily activate consumers’ BS radar, so make sure that your purpose is truly, madly and deeply lived by the entire organisation. Otherwise it’s not a purpose, just Marketing.