If the numbers tell the tale, there is a little less truly new product development going on, less interest in the soon-to-be obsolete Dietary Guidelines, a longer product development cycle and more use of open innovation.
Those are some of the topline results from our 43rd annual R&D Survey. The numbers on the following pages are based on 215 responses to our electronic survey, which was taken during the March and early April. (The number of respondents is down considerably due to a "service attack" – more on that in the methodology section.)
One of the more remarkable points is the growth of companies practicing open innovation. In the three years we've been asking that as part of a larger question (see Figure 12), it's grown annually to where it's now 50 percent in this year's survey.
As for your most important priority for the year under way (Figure 2), "really new" product development held onto first place, its traditional place, although it is at its lowest point since at least 2009 (maybe longer – our earlier records are sketchy). The 39 percent who are making it Job One is 9 points behind last year. Other than the 40 percent who voted for it in 2012, that answer has tracked between 47 and 49 percent.
But swinging for the fences still excites the R&D crowd. "I want to create flavor profiles that make people go 'wow,' " said a maker of cheese cakes.
"New product development is on a fast track and resources committed. Funds and management will be increased for faster development," wrote one respondent.
"We're investing staff and dollars in the R&D Dept." said a product developer. Another notes, "The company focus has changed to natural & non-GMO, and it is recognized that requires significant R&D investment."
While cost savings didn't produce an overwhelming vote, it did overwhelm the write-in comments. "We have a big number to hit for cost savings this year," wrote a product developer at a maker of soups and sauces.
"Competition from the Asian markets is forcing a review of the slow moving products," said another respondent. "Cost optimization will be a big focus this year," wrote a large processor of frozen seafood.
Ingredient and energy price increases were worrisome to a respondent at a small company. One product developer noted looking at egg replacers to reduce costs. And then there's the commonplace "always have to do more with less."
Existing product improvement and "cleaning up" current products – which admittedly may be similar – tied for second with 16 percent each. Those scores are down 2 points from last year for existing product improvement and up 6 points for "cleaning up."
A slightly different question (Figure 1) asks for the overarching strategy in your R&D Dept. As always, food safety gets the obligatory No. 1 nod but going organic or natural made its strongest showing in at least seven years. That figure shows how an issue that doesn’t get that many first-place votes can be everyone’s No. 2 concern – as with “sustainable/eco-friendly/fair trade” capturing only 3.3 percent of first-place votes but coming in third place in overall points. The converse is true with removing partially hydrogenated oils – it will be Job One for 9.4 percent of respondents, the third highest vote-getter in the “most important” category, but the lowest score overall.
Looking a little further down the road, "healthier/better-for-you foods" remains the top theme for the foreseeable future (Figure 8), up a couple of points from last year. Regulatory issues again came in second, while following consumer trends slipped 8 points. Seven of those points went to outsourcing, which has only scored in the low teens before this year.
And finding qualified personnel and other labor issues continue to be a concern for 27 percent of respondents. One respondent noted his overall R&D budget has been cut because "We've been unable to find adequate replacements for staff that have retired in the last couple of years." But going green and going global, separate answers, each continued three-year declines.
As for your R&D Dept.'s budget, it's pretty much a wash versus last year. Both "it's been increased" and "it's been cut" grew by 1 percentage point. After all, "The economy isn't improving," at least in the eyes of one respondent.
But at least some companies are investing in product development.
Cleaning up your labels
For the first time, we asked the open-ended question, "What is your company doing to make a cleaner label?" The answers run the gamut from "keeping it simple as possible" to obtaining "carbon neutral/Rain Forest Alliance RA certification."
Some are "looking at natural flavors & colors, removing preservatives and additives where possible." Others "continue to reduce sodium, etc. without sacrificing taste." And one is "looking for ingredients with multiple functions under a single ingredient name."
One respondent is "removing PHOs, reducing artificial colors and flavors, removing HFCS and preservatives." Another will "look into possibilities to remove E-numbers from ingredient list for a particular product; see if it is possible to work without aroma." A handful say they are working on Non-GMO Project certification. Despite the consumer benefits of adding vitamins, minerals and other health-imparting ingredients, one company is "removing enrichment in certain products to make ingredient statement shorter and to make an 'all natural' claim."
One thing that doesn't appear to be that big an issue is the removal of partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats. If the FDA rules they are no longer generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredients, that's only a huge deal for 6.6 percent of you; and something that's already under control for another 21 percent. Another 21 percent say they've already accomplished reformulations. The biggest group, 41 percent, say PHOs don't apply to their products.
Another issue headed for sundown is the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. They were huge when new (in 2011) and they're still having an impact for more than half of you. But with the new guides due out in a year, they're supremely important for only 19 percent and unimportant for 35 percent. We'll see what next year brings.
Nevertheless, some of the ingredient and nutritional recommendations in the four-year-old guidelines still carry weight. Removing sodium remains paramount for 29 percent of you, although that's down 10 points from last year. With the FDA's proposed new nutrition label calling more attention to added sugars, removing them is key for 28 percent. Adding fiber and fruits & vegetables remain the top additions.
Who’s on the team?
There is no "I" in team, but there's a lot more than R and D. Questions about what job titles participate in product development and who really calls the shots turned up answers that have remained consistent through the recent years of this survey.
One factor worth mentioning: Our readership is pretty evenly split between larger companies (more than 100 employees at the location to which we mail the magazine) and smaller ones. That diversity is apparent in many of the organizational questions.
Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of you have a formal product development team, another 11 say "sort of." (Figure 9). And while the R&D Dept. is the core of that team for most companies (87 percent), it's clear product development is a group effort.
Marketing is the next biggest job title on the product development effort, its 69 percent the job title's best showing since 2011. Manufacturing, still in third place, and the other titles are all within a percentage point or so of previous showings. (Figure 6). Of note is the continued reliance on outside suppliers and consultants.
The same goes for who influences annual goal-setting in product development. The R&D Dept. calls the shots for 78 percent with marketing not too far behind (this and some other figures are only in the web version of this story). But top management and mid-level management trumps manufacturing. Among write-ins for "anybody else involved?" quality assurance/quality control got a significant number of votes.
The product development team seems to be meeting more often. Weekly meetings were common for 27 percent of you last year and 21 percent in 2012; now they're weekly for 31 percent. "A couple times a month" also increased a few points; monthly and less than monthly went down. And virtual meetings (8 percent) are on the rise.
Internal research is still the main element of identifying new product ideas (70 percent), but here, too, the open door is apparent. 49 percent of you practice open innovation, and suppliers and external product development companies also contribute significantly. 37 percent rely on focus groups.
So after all the research and meetings and input, how long does it take to get that baby from concept to the grocery store? A little longer than it used to. 12 percentage points moved from the shorter wait times to the "nearly a year" and longer responses.
Another new question, this one suggested by our advisory board, provided mixed results. "Besides federal regulations, are city or state regulations a problem?" Only 15 percent said yes.
Our final question is a catch-all: Is there anything we missed or anything you care to add? A couple of the answers are worth noting. Allergens came up several times; "harmonizing product profiles globally across diverse cultures" was interesting, as was crowd-sourcing.
And maybe the best advice, from a guy at a North Carolina microbrewer: “Focus on core product and values, and don’t get sidetracked.”