KANSAS CITY, MO. -- While the pandemic brought unique challenges in bringing new products to market, Rod Hogan, vice president of new business development with Sargento, said the worst thing they could have done would have been to take their foot off the gas pedal from an innovation standpoint.
THE NEW PRODUCT PIPELINE
Hogan said early in the pandemic was a difficult time for new product development as consumers weren’t shopping for new products, and companies weren’t thinking about bringing new products to market.
Catherine Fox, vice president of dairy foods marketing at Land O’Lakes, said innovation took on a new meaning early in the pandemic as it was less about product innovation and more about the ingenuity of the team.
“Fast forward to today, and there is still just a lot of ambiguity, a lot of unknowns in the environment that make companies somewhat hesitant to think about innovation,” Hogan said.
Hogan said the key now is determining what new consumer trends and behaviors are here to stay. He said companies have been looking at whether it is better to invest in their base business or if they want to make investments in new products. Despite it all, he said Sargento still continued with innovation during the pandemic.
“Whatever coming out of the COVID environment looked like, we wanted to make sure we were building our innovation pipeline,” Hogan said.
To this end, Hogan said Sargento has recently introduced a creamery line of shredded and sliced cheeses. These products have a touch of cream in them and are designed to perform at their best in hot applications. Hogan said this product was in part born out of consumer expectations for cooking at home. To introduce the product, they had to create a unique process to create the cheeses at scale while delivering all the desired properties. He said they have also introduced Balanced Breaks Cheese and Crackers in a partnership with Mondelez International.
Hogan said in general their process for new product development takes about 18 months depending on the scope of the project, capital requirements, and development time of new cheese varieties.
Hogan said some new approaches to consumer research are allowing them to move faster in product development. More consumer research is being done online now, which is speeding up processes and allowing them to get ideas more quickly.
“You have to be consumer-centric,” Hogan said. “You have to be strategic. You have to be disciplined. You have to be excellent in terms of your overall execution.”
“More and more people are looking for a sense of adventure and flavor,” said Madeleine Coggins, trade marketing manager for Laura Chenel. “People are looking for interesting flavors – something that is going to inspire them to get creative in the kitchen.”
To this end, Laura Chenel has launched a line of fresh goat cheeses with original, thyme and rosemary, four peppercorn, dill, and everything bagel (sesame, garlic, poppy seed, and onion) flavors.
“Remember who you are making the product for at every step of the process,” Coggins said. “Know the target consumer. Ask them about it. Check-in with them at every step of the process.”
Coggins said they have close-in innovation, such as adding a new flavor to a goat cheese log line, typically taking about eight months. They also have longer-term innovation such as adding a new goat cheese, which takes longer.
Coggins also said retailers are placing increased requirements in the digital space as there are more online platforms. She said previously retailers would take product images, but now they need to provide images.
Fox said Land O’Lakes has seen popularity in products with seeds, and consequently they have launched a butter spread with flax, chia, and hemp seeds. Additionally, they are seeing consumers looking for enhanced flavors, and they are launching a maple-flavored tub butter in response to the popularity of their pumpkin pie spice flavored tub of butter.
It sometimes pays to think small, said Raquel Melo, vice-president of product innovation at Dairy Farmers of America. For example, the Kemps brand launched Siips flavored milk products targeted to the tween market. She said they had found insight around kids loving chocolate-flavored milk but not resonating with the packaging. As a result, they made it an attractive product and launched it rather quickly, but in only two venues.
“It’s been really successful for us on that tiny scale, and we are now expanding it,” Melo said.
Melo said it can be challenging to cut into line time to bring a product to market on a small scale, but it can often prove to be the best route forward when a company can do it.
She also said the La Vaquita brand recently introduced a butter product with two sticks per package targeted to the Hispanic market. She said this was born out of consumer research finding Hispanic consumers desire to use butter but haven’t discovered it as they have other categories in part because of a misconception they aren’t interested in such products. The size also made for a good value proposition in the market.
“Getting the value proposition really laser-focused is something that is increasingly important because the marketplace is increasingly competitive,” Melo said.
Melo said through their Live Real Farms line of milks, they have developed the Dairy+ line of plant and dairy milk that combines milk and almond or oats in the beverage. She said this was born out of research that consumers typically have both dairy and plant-based options in their refrigerators. She said a new generation of consumers coming up are accustomed to the thinner viscosity and sweeter profile of plant-based products. Additionally, she said there will be an emphasis on providing hydration-based dairy beverages in the future.
Melo said in the past product development typically took two years, but trends are moving more quickly now. While development is happening more rapidly, she said patience is also key when bringing new products to market. She said the industry often forgets it took Chobani time before they made it big, and it’s important to allow time for word of mouth.
“While it’s a lot of work and takes a lot of attention to detail, launching a new product is a very rewarding process,” Coggins said.
This story is featured in the September issue of Dairy Processing.