The new/old buzzword in the food industry is “flavor.” Flavor is one of the highest motivators for consuming food. (Others include food as fuel, for nutrition and as a social experience.)

According to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, flavor is the driver for the $40 billion global food industry. With food companies asking, “What are the new 'flavor' trends?” and, “How do you get or develop delicious flavor?” the most important questions are often the “whys” of flavor. For example, why is flavor in vogue? And, most importantly, why should the food industry care about using flavor as a business-building strategy?

Flavor always has been and always will be an important driver of eating behavior. Flavor market dynamics show that various food sectors (consumer, retailer, foodservice operator, manufacturer, grower and industrial supplier) all are interested and fascinated with flavor, although each sector faces specific challenges.

For example, challenges that foodservice operators and grocery retailers encounter include: a mass market that is increasingly segmented into micro markets; consumers who demand customization (we are the “Have it your way” generation); changes in ethnic populations and other consumer demographic and psychographic shifts; changing eating patterns; better traveled and experienced consumers; and, customers that bring knowledge and demands to every decision process.

Reviewing “flavor user” characteristics by sector will help readers to understand the flavor business.

* Grower “flavor user” characteristics include global thinking, organic crops, adaptation of plants and animals, and use of chemicals and agricultural technologies to meet the demands of the food processing industry and its diverse customer base.

* Manufacturer “flavor user” characteristics include the tendency to source ingredients from around the world, the use of global processing techniques, a labor force that is multi-national and the ability to search the world for new ideas such as the development of artisan products.

* Foodservice operator and retailer “flavor user” characteristics include multi-cultural staff, multi-cultural customer, multi-cultural menus and multi-cultural cooking techniques.

* Consumer “flavor user” characteristics include adventurous, multi-cultural, finicky, knowledgeable and empowered.

Flavor is important to everyone because it is a method to partner with your customer. It is an easily understandable pillar with which the consumer, retailer, foodservice operator, manufacturer and grower can identify.

Flavor also creates excitement in the market about the offerings. Most consumers are interested in trying new flavors of old favorites. Whether it is the newest snack offering, breakfast cereal or beverage, they want to give it the “crave-ability” test. That is, will the new flavor be something that, once tasted, will be “crave-able” enough to alter their future eating behavior?

The Business Purpose of Flavor

There are five key advantages to using flavor as a business strategy. First, flavor can ensure distinct brand differentiation between products in a category. If a product can offer distinct flavors that are proprietary--even for a short period of time--it can provide the category boost that leads to a marketing advantage.

Second, flavor can be the reason one destination is chosen over another. If a foodservice operator has unique flavor offerings, this can drive a consumer's decision as to where, or even whether, to dine out. Witness the success of TGI Friday's with its Jack Daniels flavorings.

Third, flavor can create repeat business. If the flavor is “crave-able,” it brings customers back again and again. Emotions play an important role in our decisions and “crave-ability” reminds us of satisfaction, and the fulfillment of our desires.

Fourth, flavor is a measurable reason for higher price points. When flavors are highly differentiated, this allows for price points that create consumer value and exceed the competition.

Finally, creativity with flavor, in all parts of a foodservice operator's menu, can help sell additional items. Once again, using the TGI Friday's example, we can see how a brand franchise can extend to other proteins, side dishes and market segments through the use of a specific flavor profile. This all has been accomplished by focusing on a flavor profile that the customer ultimately craves.

Simply put, flavor is the most important attribute in foods and beverages. The late chef Michael Roberts defined flavor this way:

“A painter creates a painting by organizing colors and shapes in some coherent way, just as a musician organizes notes into melodies to form a musical composition. Cooking, likewise, is the act of taking basic ingredients and organizing them in a coherent way, using food as the medium and flavor as the message. Flavor is to food what hue is to color. It is what timbre is to music. Flavor is the adjective, food is noun.”

--excerpted from Secret Ingredients, “About Flavor,” Chef Michael Roberts ©1988

If “flavor is the adjective and food is the noun,” then global and ethnic cuisines will continue to shape menus, intrigue chefs and stimulate the consumer's appetite for more flavors.

Flavor brings honesty to a cuisine. It defines the food and beverage itself. Presently, much is being said about the authenticity of cuisines. The consumer no longer can be fooled with flavors that are not grounded in some form of authenticity in heritage, culture or cooking technique.

Insights into Actions

The old flavor business model was: 1. Offer greater variety, 2. Offer acceptable taste sensations and 3. Offer more excitement.

The new business model now can be summarized as: 1. Understand your customer's purpose, 2. Understand your customers' tastes, 3. Use flavor as the filter for decision-making, 4. Create a flavor culture and 5. Correlate flavor with the brand.

So, how is this done? The first step is to adopt a strategic culinary business strategy. Treat flavor like a business. Make flavor one of your core strategies in the business and marketing plan so that it has initiatives, tactics and programs--just like every other strategy. Treat it as seriously as the financial or the operational strategies. Flavor can then be used as a decision filter throughout the organization.

Once a strategic culinary business strategy has been adopted, consider borrowing a positioning strategy as instructed in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Reis and Jack Trout. It reminds us that people understand the familiar, and something new is learned only when it is made relative to something that already is understood. Existing perceptions are the shortest distance into a prospect's mind. Flavor is easily translatable and universally understood. When flavor is used as a positioning strategy, it offers the easiest way to enter consumers' minds.

According to a November 29, 2005 The Wall Street Journal article entitled “It's the Purpose Brand, Stupid,” by Clayton Christensen, Scott Cook and Taddy Hall, “Of the 30,000 new consumer products launched each year, over 90% of them fail.” Reasons identified for the high failure rate included too much segmentation, not wide enough appeal, not meeting the needs of the real customer, and the use of old brand-building models. Their answer to this dilemma is that marketers need to understand what the customer wants done, not so much to understand the customer. To illustrate this concept, they repeated Harvard professor Theodore Levitt's famous quote, “People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Their thesis is that a “purpose brand” has two sides of the same coin. One side “guides customers to products that will do the job.” The other side guides marketers and R&D during the development of that product.

As flavor is applied to the purpose-driven brand concept, the question that should be answered is: “What is driving the consumer's purpose of your brand as it relates to flavor?” Can your customer easily identify your flavor focus? Does your flavor focus differentiate your offerings from your competition? Product developers can thus use flavor as a business-building strategy.

Creating a “flavor vision” for your products and company is the first step in using flavor as a business-building strategy. The simplest method for determining this vision is to answer the following questions:

* Aspiration--Does your company or product aspire to flavor objectives?

* Competence--Does your company or product have skills and knowledge in the flavor arena?

* Differentiation--Does your company or product provide flavor uniqueness?

* Inspiration--Do flavors inspire your company?

The flavor vision can then be used to drive other flavor marketing actions. These include but are not limited to understanding the flavor facts. There are differences between food trends and fads; these should be identified and analyzed for implications. Also, know the “evolution of a trend.” Not all trends last forever, so understand a trend's specific cycle. Understand the authenticity of cuisines, cultural implications and authentic cooking techniques.

The flavor vision can also help you find a “flavor story” that defines your brand. Make it intellectual, emotional and sensual. Remember, flavor is about eating, and eating is an emotional experience. Customers should easily be able to know your story and identify it with your brand.

How many food organizations have a flavor culture? The flavor vision can be used to create a company's flavor culture. Is flavor at the center of your organization? Does your company have a kitchen altar at the center of your physical building, or does your company separate the foodies from the sales, marketing and management of the company? Make the flavor culture unique to your organization. Be sure to extend the culture to those who are closest to the customer, such as the sales staff, but also expose all employees to the aromas and flavors that make your company or product unique.

Consider appointing a “flavor guardian,” which is a position similar to a brand guardian. The flavor guardian should also become a flavor agent of change in the food organization as trends change, with the ultimate responsibility of being a “flavor culture advocate.” This person should be committed to the responsibility, and the company should be committed to honoring the position.

The final flavor marketing action is one we can all achieve, that of becoming a flavor expert. Expertise is available through education and knowledge. A great resource for understanding flavors is through the use of the Flavor Pyramid™ (see Website Resources). The pyramid deconstructs flavor into six levels: emotional perceptions, visual appearance, aromas, textures, feeling sensations and basic tastes.

Finally, the crucial discipline to become a “flavor expert” is by tasting, and tasting some more. There is no replacement for experimenting. And, who does not want to taste great food?