Foods enjoyed around the world often rely on regional recipes to satisfy local tastes.
When tailoring products for a multi-market rollout, chefs and others responsible for new product formulations have many variables to consider, not the least of which is a product's flavor profile. Partnering with vendors that know the target audience saves valuable time and money, and helps ensure a product that will be successful in all regions.

In today's multi-national marketplace, many new products are expected to perform in more than one region or even in more than one country. Chefs and other formulators involved in concept creation find themselves asked to ensure their newest gourmet ideas will be a success not only in the primary market they were intended for, but also in exotic places.

It is the responsibility of research chefs or others responsible for prototype creation to ensure that the flavor profiles of these “21st” century foods are accepted wherever they are launched. Whether intended for Boston or Beijing, Chicago or Shanghai, or all these places, the creations must taste great. However, taste preferences vary from country to country and even from region to region. The perfect cinnamon flavor profile for Boston customers may be unacceptable to the citizens of Paris. Maybe it will delight shoppers in Frankfurt, Germany. There is no one taste profile that is “best” for the worldwide market.

For this reason, the flavors of new products must be “tailored” to fit each target market. Of course, the product must remain true to its specifications and be consistent. But, within those specs, one must make adjustments. A Big Mac in Moscow is still a Big Mac. Tenacious adherence to tight quality specifications has made it one of the most successful sandwiches of all time.

Knowledgeable Vendors Help Success

When starting to create a prototype, or “gold standard,” one begins with flavor profiles familiar to the developer. Using the example of a North American cinnamon flavor for baked goods, one might start with a readily available spice at a level appropriate and familiar to a U.S. manufacturer. This becomes a benchmark. Next, one must determine which cinnamon type and what level makes sense for Germany. Will it only be a ground spice, or will a liquid flavor be needed for original profile accuracy or shelf life demands? If flavors are to be used, are they approved for use in that country?

Additionally, regulatory issues for various countries are very complex. It is advisable to select vendors who sell in both (or all) markets. They have the pertinent information regarding each country's regulations, and time (or a consultant's fee) may be saved by using the multi-national supplier as a data resource. As this manufacturer either produces within the target market or sells there, he has the expertise and resources to provide information on what is considered “authentic” cinnamon flavor in different countries.

If there is a difference between the two flavor systems in terms of finished flavor profiles (your company's cinnamon vs. the other company's cinnamon), do not yet discard “the baby with the bath water.” Assuming that both profiles can be produced and sold in the target market(s), provide both types and let the customer choose. It is possible that the customer or the end consumer may prefer something new. The final flavor profile and ingredients used may well be a hybrid of the two samples. North Americans are not alone in wanting new tastes and flavors. Marketing always is in search of “new” features to promote during important product roll-outs.

Be reminded of a project for a large North American chain restaurant that wished to mass-produce its BBQ sauce. Of course, executives wanted to standardize it throughout the chain. When sensory tested, however, the “gold standard” was found to be “bronze, at best.” Obviously, the chain should have considered some new flavor profiles, but it refuted the suggestion, believing the sauce was an “icon.” A great deal of time and money was spent reaching the target profile. Once matched, both sauces were sensory tested again. Eventually, decision-makers came to believe their original “secret recipe” could use some improvement. Be prepared to submit a variety of profiles, always consider texture and mouthfeel and, if possible, submit ranges of many variables. If manufacturers send a range of samples to begin with, that may help focus development on a viable target and prevent distraction downstream, when plans should be finalized.

Ingredients Vary Worldwide

As every “worldwide” restaurant chain knows, the components used to build that Big Mac are purchased locally. Generally, the cheese comes from local cows, fed on local feed. The lettuce is grown on local farms. The buns are baked somewhere within driving distance of the restaurant in which they are served. That all adds up to a unique blend of “sub-flavors.” Familiar, local flavors are something that local customers recognize. Cheddar cheese from Wisconsin does not taste just like cheese from Cheddar, England.

Recently, while visiting a Chicago-based flavor manufacturer, a tour group of research chefs was given a demonstration of a gas chromagraph (GS) and a mass spectrometer (MS). Both machines are used to identify and help “match” flavors during product development. Interestingly enough, one state-of-the art piece of scientific equipment had an “olfactory port.” The port was used when the machine had reached the final limits of science and technology and still could not identify a mystery flavor compound. (Yes, when the gazillion-dollar machine fails, they get a human to smell the sample.) A skilled individual or a trained sensory descriptive panel can do this.

Currently, a trained panel with appropriate statistical software is more accurate than any machine. Trained panels are a significant investment of both money and time. Both flavor and seasoning houses may offer this service to their customers. And many times, the operator can identify the substance that the best analytical machines cannot. Customers have a truly amazing ability to recognize flavors they enjoy. And they have an equally impressive ability to pick up flavor notes that they find distasteful.

An international ingredient supplier can shed light on the acceptability of a new product in several countries.
Often, these “sub-notes” are not vital to the overall flavor profile of the original prototype product. Sometimes, slight modifications to the flavor system can yield an item that is nearly identical to the original, yet has a taste profile that is far more acceptable to customers of the secondary market.

Today's largest flavor houses are well aware of the varying taste preferences from country to country. As a resource for advice regarding this subject, they are invaluable. Many of the best flavor and spice companies now have research chefs on staff. Working with them, today's food developer easily can modify the flavor system being used to better match regional preferences. When evaluating suppliers for an international project (or when evaluating your existing suppliers) consider what they can offer: Do they have staff research chef(s)?; international regulatory expertise?; point-of-sale market and taste preference support staff?; sensory science professionals?; and nutritional and ingredient declaration services? Naturally, each and every international launch has unique products and equally unique needs. Find flavor suppliers that can help meet those needs.

In the following case, a flavor supplier's international abilities helped ensure the success of a new pastry item being created in Chicago this past spring. There were focus groups about it in Frankfurt, Germany, and the product was targeted for launch in Europe, Africa and Asia. The item had a flavor system comprised of a number of different notes including butter, vanilla and cinnamon.

Initial consumer testing indicated that the “butter notes” were overwhelmingly accepted in the European market but completely unacceptable in the Asian market. Had the product been rolled out “as is” to both areas, the Asian “version” would have failed.

The dairy portion of the flavor system could not simply be eliminated—it was important to the overall cinnamon and vanilla profile. The answer was to modify the dairy flavor in order to provide a total flavor system that would please the Asian target customers. By calling on a flavor company with facilities in both Chicago and Tokyo, an “Asian” dairy flavor was developed initially, saving time and money. During the earliest stages of testing in Chicago, the Asian dairy flavor was incorporated into the prototypes. The customers tested in Chicago accepted the flavor readily. And, of course, the eventual roll-out in Asian markets went smoothly, as the flavor system had been developed with the “tougher” customers in mind. Flavors developed in Asia, by Asians for Asians. Yet, the prototypes were initially created in Chicago, for a European roll-out. If the final destination is Asia, do not forget to ask the obvious: “Do they eat dairy foods in China?” If the answer is a loud no, then food companies may have “carte blanche,” as any dairy or butter note may work. Or, the product may not sell at all.

However, do the homework, as the research chef and marketing manager need to know in advance. Together, they can “tailor” new flavor systems to fit each target market during scale-up.

Sidebar: Project Checklist

  • Before starting the project, do you need to establish a confidentiality agreement between your company and your flavor company?
  • What specific information can you tell us about your project and its objectives?
  • Can you provide an unflavored base for screening and creating flavors?
  • Do you have a target flavor to pursue?
  • What specific requirements (such as pH or special processing conditions) for your base will affect the flavor?
  • What additives (such as sweeteners, fruit acids, and buffers) may be used in conjunction with the base to develop the flavor?
  • For the finished flavor, what are your requirements (such as water-soluble, oil soluble, powdered form, low aldehyde flavor ingredients, heat stable, prolonged shelf life)?
  • Must the flavor be all-natural or will artificial do?
  • If any nutrients or supplements are being incorporated into the products, what are the levels?
  • Will an additional masking agent or flavor enhancer be required in the system to improve the flavor profile?
  • Do any unusual governmental regulations apply, domestically or internationally?
  • What size flavor sample will you need for testing?
  • What are the time and cost parameters?