For a creativity exercise, a Hershey Co. product development team was asked to go on an imaginary vacation to the Alps. Looking at a travel poster, the team remarked that the snow-covered mountains with skiing "shoosh" marks spiraling downward looked a little like a Hershey's Kiss – but a white chocolate one with brown chocolate stripes. The result a few months later was Hershey's Hugs.
Ideation can come in strange ways and in strange places; and in many instances, the stranger the better. Food and beverage companies have used meetings, retreats and trusted vendors for years. More recently, most have open up a bit, allowing in more outside experts and innovation facilitators; some have even looked to the faceless "crowd." Now the ubiquity and connectedness of the Internet make ideation an activity that even your customers/consumers can participate in.
Like the stuffing that accompanied your turkey dinner last Thanksgiving, everyone seems to have their own tried and true recipe, which has afforded them a reliable measure of success in the past. But is it time to try a new recipe?
Ideation is more art than science. But the artist's paintbox has some interesting new colors in it, including crowd-sourcing, open innovation and social media.
"Most of the folklore on new product development is about the glamorous moment when the light bulb goes on. However, the best ideas bounce like ping-pong balls, they don't flash on like lights," says Christopher Miller, CEO and founder of Innovation Focus Inc., Lancaster, Pa.
He should know. In a career of more than 25 years, Miller thinks he and his company have presided over some 3,000 ideation or new product development sessions, with the resulting products including that variation of Hershey's Kisses.
Before we get into all the logic of looking outside your four walls and even connecting with consumers, one counterintuitive thing Miller and two other consultants told us was "don't blindly follow what the consumer tells you." Why? "Because people only know what they know," says Jackie Beckley, president and one of the founders of The Understanding & Insight Group. Adds Miller: "Innovation is a dialogue [among] the consumer, the customer (retailer), marketing, operations, technology and strategy. An idea developed in a vacuum by any one of these teams is likely to be found lacking by the other teams."
Crowdsourcing is a hot topic at the moment. It's trendy, sounds exciting and can go directly to your consumers for ideas – or to experts that you don't even know exist. That also makes it unstructured, unpredictable and possibly unwieldy. It takes careful planning to make the process both free-form and conforming to what your company can and wants to do.
Wikipedia nicely defines crowdsourcing as "a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. This process can occur both online and offline.
Crowdsourcing is different from an ordinary outsourcing since it is a task or problem that is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific body."
We did a fair amount of research and networking on this subject and – perhaps true to the very nature of crowdsourcing – found very few consulting companies that specialized in both it and product development, much less food & beverage-specific work. But there is a fair amount of material on the Internet.
For example, www.crowdsource.com, which nailed the URL, specializes in "labor-intensive tasks" and claims the ability to deliver "500,000 workers on demand." Perhaps the most relevant example of its work is "Sentiment Analysis": "Gain insight into customers' attitudes about your brand by analyzing the variables of context, tone and emotion expressed through various social media platforms," according to its online description.
And www.crowdsourcing.org is so broad, open and freewheeling that it looks unstructured and unspecialized – although it does contain an interview with Mark van Iterson, head of global design for Heineken, discussing the brewer's decision to crowdsource a design for a new Heineken bottle for the company's 140th anniversary.
Despite being an acquisition of Unilever, Ben & Jerry's has maintained its historic close association with its consumers. "Social media has provided Ben & Jerry's a platform to personally engage with their passionate fans, giving ice cream lovers new ways to connect with the company," says Kelly Mohr, "assistant manager of PR Shenanigans."
The company claims flavors Chubby Hubby, Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, among others, were suggested by fans. That's one form of crowdsourcing, according to the company.
"How fortunate are we to have supporters who share their love, their names and their ideas for our flavor combinations," says Dave Stever, the company's chief marketing officer, who has worked for the progressive ice cream maker for almost a quarter of a century. "We're always thankful for having the most passionate, intense and crazy fans in the world. They make all the difference."
We feel like we've given you lots of discussion and no clear roadmap in the above section … and maybe that's the point. Crowdsourcing is so flexible as to be ill-defined, so use it however your company wants to use it.
Managed crowdsourcing/open innovation
One company that claims to manage crowdsourcing but looks more like an open innovation platform is Allfoodexperts, "a company hosting the interests of experts owning specific and high level agri-food know-how," according to the firm's mission statement. While its concept and fundamental process has existed since 2011, Allfoodexperts just started business this January.
It sends your product development problems out to only a qualified group of experts, as the name implies – so it's not the free-for-all of unmanaged crowdsourcing, but it promises better results.
"The operation of the company is executed on an open innovation platform and by a community with the principal objective of delivering fast and reliable value-added applied solutions to different interest groups having challenges within the agri-food industry," explains Henrik Stamm Kristensen, Danish businessman who built Premium Ingredients (not the U.S. ingredient company that formerly used that name), a maker of functional ingredients and custom blends, in Spain in 1997.
In starting his business from scratch, Kristensen practiced crowdsourcing before the term was coined, networking and asking anyone who would listen how to solve the problems he was coming up against. "We learned how to innovate and to cooperate and to get help from outside," he says.
And while Nestle or General Mills can solve most of their own problems or know where to go for outside help, "Ninety percent of the world's food comes from small to medium-sized food companies," Kristensen claims. "They all need technology. They all need solutions to problems – solutions that someone out there already knows. But how do they find those people in an efficient way?'
Enter Allfoodexperts.com. On the one side are members, a growing list of food industry experts (there's room for more!), some of whom were laid off or retired from some of the world's largest food companies, all of them coming with references or referrals. On the other side are what Kristensen calls "challengers," companies that pose a problem that Allfoodexperts shops around to its member-experts.
"Someone in our community raises a hand and says, ‘I can solve that.' We vet them and send their simple explanation on to the challenger. If both sides agree to work together, a contract is created."
That's the point to start discussing fees, including a payment to Allfoodexperts.
Both before and since the January launch of this company, Kristensen claims Allfoodexperts has solved:
- Ingredients for three-dimensional printed bakery products.
- Advanced application uses of NIR equipment for food ingredient powder blend.
- Combination of mould inhibitor and stabilizer for meat applications.
- Food ingredient for nitrification of fish.
NineSigma is another such company, founded in 2000 on the premise that "industry needed an effective means for broadcasting corporate needs to potential solution providers to stay ahead of the technology curve, similar to the methods employed by the U.S. government research group DARPA.
"Companies today recognize the value of open innovation and are eager to overcome the ‘not-invented-here' mindset that we at NineSigma found to be prevalent when we started in the early 2000s," continues the company description. "But it was those selling challenges a decade ago that helped us refine our message and develop a proven methodology that coaches a client through each step of the open innovation process, from adopting an open innovation strategy to successful outcomes, like contracting with solution providers and acquiring new technology solutions.
It lists among its "real world open innovation examples":
- A resealable package closure system for Kraft Foods' dry snack products. It became the peel-and-reseal packaging on Oreos and other cookies.
- Pourable frozen pastas and sauces for "a multi-billion dollar company," so consumers could prepare the exact portion desired.
Even more-managed open innovation
"Crowdsourcing is still in the development phase," sums Miller of Innovation Focus. While maintaining openness, his company and other consultancies provide an orderly structure to the process.
Innovation Focus has helped companies, many of them in the food & beverage space, think and look outside their own four walls for help in developing products. The firm promises "to help you develop and implement profitable ideas for growth … using a unique mix of creative and analytical processes."
Miller likes the diversity of crowdsourcing and the lack of restraints, but he clearly favors an assembled team charged with a task. "You need to form a good team and trust the team," he says. "But it may not be a team entirely from within your company. You should look outside for experts" -- experts, he says, on consumer needs, packaging, novel ingredients, whatever may be key to your project.
Miller also is a contributor to books and articles for the Product Development and Management Association, "a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organization with the mission to improve the effectiveness of people and organizations in product development and management." It's another good source on this subject.
"Even if you have really smart people, a bunch of people from the same company who have been there for years will come up with the same ideas they tried 20 years ago," warns Beckley of The Understanding & Insight Group, Denville, N.J. A former product development executive at Nabsico and Quaker Oats, her business development and strategy practice has a strong focus on "innovation development, new product development and new processes," and it promises ROI – "return on innovation."
"Instead, get X number of people who are experts on the subject you're dealing with. Get them from anywhere. You need some company people to keep the idea within the abilities of your company, but you don't want them all to be your people.
"And you really don't have to get all the people in the same room at the same time. You can do it virtually," she adds. "There are a lot of good virtual/digital tools." The Internet is a good way of getting people outside the company involved in the process.
However, both Beckley and Miller add, don't overlook people within your own company who are not part of the product development team. Rank-and-file employees on the plant floor or in the office are consumers and parents, and they might make good members of an ideation team. A properly worded description of the type of insight you want might turn up these people right under your noses.
Processors open the innovation window
Most recently, food and beverage processors have gotten comfortable enough with open innovation to start practicing it on their own – without even the help of outside consultants.
General Mills made itself a poster child for open innovation when it created its G-WIN program, which stands for General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network. Back in 2005, the company created a strategy to bring together the brightest minds and best ideas, internally and externally. In 2007, the program evolved into G-WIN.
It's an effort that involves tearing down some of the walls and the proprietary thinking rampant in the food industry, the company says. General Mills product developers use it to pose questions and problems to anyone who will listen, both within and the company and outside of it. It also allows people to come to General Mills with ideas for new products.
Although it has a significant internal component, a lot of the spotlight on G-WIN has shone on its external effort to get out the word when General Mills was looking for a solution to a product development problem. It's brought new partners to the company -- whether they are entrepreneurs, inventors, university researchers or suppliers -- and incorporated new technologies that complement Big G's existing brands and businesses.
"When we originally created the program, we were focused on external innovation," Jeff Bellairs, director of G-WIN, explained to us when we named General Mills our large-company R&D Team of the Year in 2009. "Since then, we've realized that the important thing is connection – or what we call connected innovation. Recently, we created innovation entrepreneurs using resources based within the division, yet totally dedicated to open innovation. [We also] build partnerships from outside [that] can supply us with technology, products or some unique capability."
A key component is connecting more effectively with suppliers "For years, we kept our suppliers at arm's length guessing what we were looking for. Now we are more explicit," says Bellairs.
"After we adopted a more collaborative approach, one of our suppliers came back with a frozen smoothie kit prototype. It became the impetus for the launch of Yoplait Smoothie kits, launched in club stores [in 2008], where they became a tremendous success."
Kraft Foods Group maintains Kraft Collaboration Kitchen, where it regularly seeks solutions such as "natural colors that delivery similar vibrancy to FDC dyes at cost effective usage levels in liquids with pH <4."
Unilever's search sounds grounded in its sustainability goals, but not entirely (see Unilever's Open Innovation Center). "We have world-class research and development facilities, making breakthroughs that keep Unilever at the forefront of product development. But we know that the world is full of brilliant people, with brilliant ideas – and we are constantly looking for new ways to work with potential partners."
So the company suggests viewing its "latest list of wants," which at this writing included natural red color for fruit and dairy products, sugar reduction, less salt and preserving food naturally.
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Food Processing Magazine.