Pretty much a single product re-do clinched an R&D Team of the Year award for Kraft Heinz Co. As a result, it's the legacy Kraft Meals and Desserts R&D team that claims the award in the large-company category.
Aside from Heinz's ketchup, there may be no more iconic product in the merged companies' portfolio than Kraft Original Macaroni & Cheese.
Imagine the risk in even a small change to that recipe.
"Our loyal fans did not want it changed, so we had to be careful to deliver on the distinctive look as well as the taste," says Heather Boggs, head of R&D for Meals and Desserts. "We weren't going to make any change until we got it right."
A number of food and beverage companies have pledged to remove questionable ingredients from products, but most make the announcement first and gradually go about the reformulation, sometimes taking years to fulfill the promise. For its "Blue Box" mac & cheese, Kraft chose to launch the reformulated product without fanfare, then to tell consumers about the change three months later.
Kraft started "cleaning up" products even before the mid-2015 merger with Heinz. Kraft Mac & Cheese Boxed Shapes with no artificial flavors, preservatives or colorants hit grocery shelves back in January 2015, and soon thereafter Kraft promised its Original Macaroni & Cheese without synthetic ingredients would debut in early 2016.
Actually, when the intention to change the recipe was revealed in April 2015, some consumers immediately claimed they noticed a change – even though it hadn't occurred. Instead, R&D work that already had been under way for two years continued.
That false alarm only raised the anxiety of taking artificial ingredients – solely the yellow-orange color – out of that iconic product. Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 were replaced with turmeric, annatto and paprika. It wasn't as simple as it sounds; initially, the substitutions did produce a slight change in taste. So the bigger recipe had to be tweaked, and there also was a process change.
"Close to 20 R&D people touched it from beginning to end," says Boggs. "Food scientists, culinary, marketing, sensory, quality experts, process, packaging – all had a hand in the reformulation." Most of the work was done at the Kraft Innovation Center in Glenview, Ill., only a mile or two from Kraft's previous sprawling suburban headquarters and 20 miles from the new Kraft office in downtown Chicago.
The new recipe started showing up on shelves last December. "We wanted consumers to experience it without being prompted," says Boggs. "We didn't even do any post-launch consumer testing."
It became what the company dubbed "The world's largest blind taste test." Three months and 50 million boxes later, Kraft Heinz launched a marketing campaign announcing the change. "It's changed. But it hasn't," is the message.
"The verdict? Consumers still love Mac & Cheese, and the business has continued to grow," as the team put in its nominating essay.
While this R&D Team of the Year award is for the mac & cheese reformulation, the same Meals and Desserts team claims a few other recent accomplishments. A premium mac & cheese product was launched in February under the Cracker Barrel brand. Organic and natural mac & cheese dinners lines also have been freshened. And on the desserts & baking side, the team launched Jell-O Creations, kits that add gummy candies and Oreo or graham cracker bits to Jell-O puddings
Life as part of the merged Kraft Heinz has been "great," says Boggs. "Our team has stayed together and stayed in this location. We've been able to stay focused on our pipeline throughout the merger. Resources has been provided to drive innovation. It's been quite positive."