Innovative Tools Help Food and Beverage Processors with Product Development Ideation

Crowdsourcing, open innovation and consultants can bring fresh perspectives to your product development process.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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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."

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.

– Christopher Miller, Innovation Focus Inc.


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,, 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 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."

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