Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Innovation: When it Pays to Take Things Slow

By: Tom Ewing, Senior Director, BrainJuicer Labs

On Day 2 of TMRE, in the Innovation Track, a case study presentation by Sargento Foods inadvertently illuminated one of the big issues in innovation: the gulf between how we talk about it, and how it actually happens.

The track chairs, Michael Laux and Thania Farrar of Burke, kicked the session off with the former, a chart showing the ever accelerating pace of technological innovation. It was the kind of chart that shows the electric lightbulb and the steam engine as less dramatic advances than the iPad – but it made its point. This is how people in our industry talk innovation – as an ever-accelerating hamster wheel of change on which brands must spin or fall off.

But is that really how innovation works? Michelle Monkoski and Barbara Kilcoyne of cheese giant Sargento implied a rather different view – where patience and timing, not frantic acceleration, are the keys to innovating against consumer trends.

Their case study focused on Sargento’s Cheese Medleys product, a proposed 2004 launch which mixed cheese, nuts and fruit in packs. Cheese Medleys boasted an array of benefits – a high-protein snack with healthy ingredients, perfect for on-the-go consumers. It was a ‘balance snack’, where buyers didn’t have to choose between great taste and nutrition.  But if you’re struggling to picture it, though, don’t worry: in testing, Cheese Medleys was a failure. The benefits simply didn’t connect with consumers.

Sargento cares about consumer trends, though. It has an annual trend day – called Trendscape – whose results feed into R&D, Sales, Category Management, Marketing and Business Development. Through its consumer trend work – based on research and on thinking outside the category box – it could see trends coming down the pipe like a new interest in the health benefits of protein, like ‘snackification’ and greater demand for one-the-go food, and like a rethinking of what ‘healthy’ food is.

This last trend was particularly crucial – it represented a shift in the consumer mindset from reactive health to proactive health. With reactive health, you try to cut out the bad stuff. With proactive health, you try and embrace the good stuff. Ideas of balance, of real and wholesome ingredients, and of freshness came back into play.


An idea whose time had come.

These were exactly the kind of trends that Cheese Medleys had been designed to appeal to. And now they were heading into the mainstream. So, eight years on from the poor performance of Cheese Medleys, Sargento designed and launched Balanced Breaks. The same basic concept, but now the trends it addressed were more familiar and recognisable to consumers.

Sargento left little to chance. Everything from the flavours to the semiotics of the package – designed to remind consumers of a yin-yang sign and suggest balance – was carefully considered before launch. And Balanced Breaks proved to be an idea whose time had come – it’s been a success, outperforming expectations for Sargento.

The philosophy Sargento applied for this successful innovation is a simple but powerful one. You need three things. You need a strong brand. You need on-point trend identification. And you need the right timing and meaningful activation for consumers.

In other words, successful innovation for a mass market brand isn’t always about the headlong rush towards novelty. It’s also a waiting game. You sometimes need to patiently wait until the trends your idea speaks to are sufficiently mainstream and recognisable among consumers for your launch to succeed. As the presenters said, “Don’t be afraid to take a new look at an old space.”

That’s not the glamorous route to innovation at the bleeding edge. But it works.

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