Criminalist Finds Patterns in Food Industry Chaos

Criminalist finds patterns and direction out of chaos for the food industry. Click to read more of this FoodProcessing.com exclusive on Suzy Badaracco, CEO and President of Tualatin, Ore.-based Culinary Tides, a criminalist specializing in forensic toxicology.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Another surprise is that low-carb is swinging around again because of new published research. "The two main studies both support low-carb again, but if you read them they both also admit the diet isn't sustainable," she says. Few GI products have been as successful as low-carb during its height, which might account for the re-interest in low-carb. "Consumers were sucked into low-carb once; I don't foresee they will fall for this again by any stretch. In general, moderation seems to be the key, but two diets on the radar are the LA Weight Loss diet (franchises have jumped from 132 to 800) and the Sonoma Diet." She speculates that a food company might launch a line based on the Sonoma diet, which does not limit or cut out food groups and has the promise of wine, grains and fresh fruits and vegetables (it is modeled after the Mediterranean diet.

Connecting the dots

Why is trend watching essential for food companies, and what do you recommend they consider as a successful strategy, we asked. "Trend watching is only essential if the company wants to be in an offensive position; if they would rather remain in a defensive position (as a follower), then trends are not as essential," she replies.

"A company must first decide if they want to be a leader among their peers or not, and decide on their playing field. Having said this, if they do want to play offensively then they must be looking spherically and outside the food industry, while simultaneously keeping tabs on competitors and leaders outside their immediate playing field. They must connect the dots and tie them to actionable questions that direct strategy -- this seems simple but few companies do it well or at all for that matter. A couple of months ago, Nestle partnered with L'Oreal, but so has Coca-Cola -- they are both now playing in beauty food. You can't just look at who you think are your competitors; you have to watch any movement that comes into your playing field. Companies can and will jump tracks into categories or trends they don't currently play in and that is where a company can be blindsided by unexpected competition."

There is one thing that keeps Badaracco up at night. She fears she will tell a client what they already know. That means she will have failed to give them new insight. The body of evidence proves she has nothing to worry about.

Suzy says

The most common mistakes in defining trends include:

  • Not consider world governments as a trend player. Companies have regulatory departments, but they are not linked into the consumer insights group or innovation center of the company. If they aren't linking them, they are not looking at government as a trend player. Look what happening in trans fats. Twenty states are passing laws to eliminate trans fats in restaurants, so government is a major player here.
  • Focusing on consumer behavior to make decisions. You have to look at consumer behavior, but since consumers are the last to know, it's like you are starting the marathon two hours after the pack. Consumers act because they are responding to something bigger. You need to find out what it is that makes them react; that's how you stay ahead of the trend. Basically, I watch the experts watching consumers. I read consumer reports from experts, link to 70 blogs and bulletin boards. I'm interested in the response the blogs generate. All consumer behavior does for me is to confirm what I already know.
  • Use linear analysis, or touching one part of the elephant to make strategic decisions. Linear analysis is when a company has a consumer behavior division, and they make strategic decisions based on those findings (usually once a year) and expect the trends to stay unchanged.
  • Rely on a Top 10 list or a one time study of consumers, product releases or other to make strategic decisions. This assumes trends are static: rather they are dynamic.
  • Having no profiling capabilities once a company enters a trend. You enter a trend, launch something, and then you don't watch. You have to have an exit strategy, because trends change, morph and die. They certainly don't last forever.
  • Having no exit strategy after entering a trend.
  • Not watching allies/adversaries to a trend. This could come in the form of competing trends, research, technology, outspoken consumer or professional organizations, etc.
  • Mistake a morph for a death, so you get out. Maybe, all you need is a directional change, letting you continue to play inside the trend. Let's say you introduce frozen Spanish Tapas appetizers. Instead of getting out, just morph to little Meze appetizers and morph again into Izakia. Looking inside the food industry for new trends is a mistake.
  • Looking inside the food industry for a new trend.  You will be entering the race hours past other runners. Most companies take six months to get into a trend, which is pretty quick, but you'll be outpaced and will not have the lion's share of the market.

Biggest challenges for the food industry

  • Speed to market - It takes a minimum 4 to 6 mo., and up to one to two years.
  • Timing of trend entry - If it's a long launch period, allow time to morph.
  • Keeping up with governments globally as silent trend players.
  • Reconciling advances in ingredient technology with consumers desire for simplicity and cleaner ingredient declarations, such as salt replacers or sugar replacers.
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