How Food & Beverage Brands Can Create a Focused Product Innovation Process

 “What else should we make?”

This may be the most frequently asked question we get from the better-for-you food and beverage brands we collaborate with. 

This question stems from a robust innovation pipeline that’s churning out lots of interesting options. (Less so from a lack of product ideas; more on that in a moment.)

Product development is one of two key ingredients in the recipe for growth for food and beverage brands:

  • Making more stuff
  • Selling it to more of the right people

And expanding your offering is especially important now, when consumers are open to trying new things, especially after more than a year of living with a stifling pandemic.

Given a robust R&D machine at your company, how do you prioritize all the new product ideas your team has? And how can you capitalize on those ideas to power growth for the brand? 

Our Product Innovation Filter, which you can download here for free, can help narrow your team’s list of big ideas to a tight selection of smart, actionable, and profitable new products. 

The Challenge of Innovation

Innovation is essential for new brands that need to develop a long-tail offering, and also for global companies with legacy brands. Because consumers and retailers are demanding better-for-you products made sustainably, multinationals are charged with creating brands and business units that will respond to these consumer preferences and grow as their legacy brands fall out of favor and lose traction.

In short, innovation is the lifeblood of an organization. Innovation increases share, helps you stay ahead of the competition, and keeps your business living and breathing.

While this brainstorming  work is fun and exciting, be careful not to  get swept up in the mad rush to market. Some brands come to us with a robust product lineup that they want to commercialize and launch right away. And we say, “Whoa, there!”

Focusing Your Innovation on Winners

Exciting though your products may be, you can’t — shouldn’t — make all of them, at least not all at once. Choosing which new offerings to advance is a strategic decision based on your brand — your promise and the way you deliver it. Innovation is not a blunt force; there should be a thin edge to the wedge.

Believe it or not, just five to seven new SKUs in a year is ideal. 

You may ask, why not dump everything on the market when you’re on an innovation roll? Well, if you come out with 478 new products at once, you’ll leave it to retailers to pick and choose what they want. It’s also frustrating for the sales team, because they can’t get enough traction with their retail partners if they offer too many options. Unless you own the category, retailers don’t have time for that. You also risk creating conflict internally among different teams that favor particular ideas. 

Too much of a good thing hampers your ability to gain the consumer’s attention because they’ll be confused about why they can’t get the same selection everywhere. And if your launch en masse includes products that aren’t quite on brand, consumers will begin to question what you stand for.

Two Keys for New Product Launches

We offer two primary suggestions to brands as they prioritize new products for launch: 

  1. Batch your innovations

 We recommend that brands batch five to seven products in a 12-month cycle over three to five years. It is a truly entrepreneurial approach, because it enables you to learn as you go. Maybe four of the five get great traction, the fifth thing transforms into something else, and one of the breakouts spins off additional new products. This test-and-learn mentality with a smaller group of new products manages risk, focuses your investment, and maximizes ROI. This strategy also fuels trust in your retail partners that you know your audience. They have an appetite for you to innovate, so by prioritizing new products you’ll have something to share with them at every category review. 

  1. Understand when the category is ripe for innovation 

Be able to distinguish when a category is ready for improvement and innovation and when it’s just not.  Here’s a great example: 25 years ago when I was working to define the Starbucks brand, I tasted mushroom coffee. Nobody was ready for mushroom coffee then. Today, the category is exploding with alternatives: reduced caffeine drinks, “stacked” coffee, and, yes, adaptogenic mushroom “coffee.” If you’d tried to innovate coffee like that 10 years ago, it would have flopped.

Again, look to the thin edge of the wedge. Search for opportunities to launch something new, at precisely the right moment, when consumers don’t yet know they need it (but you do). 

A (Re)Focused Innovation Process is Worth the Work

No matter your organization, brand innovation requires an entrepreneurial mindset. Would you rather sell a lot of small things to many people and be quickly forgotten? Or focus a few new products and sell the heck out of them and be knitted into your customers’ lives? 

A disciplined innovation process yields explosive business results. It guarantees you’re constantly introducing products that consumers want and need, which makes marketing easier and cheaper. It disrupts your category. You’re introducing something that’s truly new rather than iterating on products already in the market. It makes forecasting easier and more accurate, since new products are highly likely to win in the market. It allocates internal resources smartly. More to the point, it generates faster financial returns — because you will know who you are making products for and why.

If your brand’s challenge is not having too many product ideas but too few, we can help with that, as well. Let’s connect to discuss greasing your innovation machine.  And if your team is overwhelmed by all the possibilities and is struggling to prioritize them, download our Product Innovation Filter here. Then let’s have a conversation.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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