January 2012/Prepared Foods -- The 29th Annual New Products Conference was held September 12-14, 2011, in Naples, Fla., with a range of speakers and topics addressing the latest trends and expectations of food and beverage consumers. Delivering the keynote address, Denny Belcastro, executive vice president of industry affairs and membership services with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), explained how shopper trips are shrinking, and in-home pantries now have reduced amounts of grocery staples. He also delved into the effects of the troubled economy on consumers of all incomes and related GMA research into shopper views.

grocery shopping

The factors influencing shopper purchase decisions was also a topic for Laurie Klein, vice president of The Family Room, (formerly Just Kid Inc.; for more information, go to www.familyroomllc.com), who explored the changing dynamics of the relationships between parents and kids’ shopping experiences. Purchase decisions are now a web of collaboration, with moms trying to balance their non-negotiable needs (easy preparation, kid delight and “real food” expectations) with those of the children (taste, portability and the “fills me up” factor). Klein noted, “Those companies that are engaging the whole family are seeing the greatest success.”

For one speaker, companies failed to meet her family’s need for a tasty, gluten-free cookie treat, so she took matters into her own hands. Dr. Lucy Gibney, president and CEO of Lucy’s Cookies, explained that although her company was born of a desire to provide a cookie her child with Celiac disease could safely eat,  (and that other children--and adults--would want to share), the company’s goal is products for everyone, not solely those with allergy concerns. Some 12 million Americans have food allergies, with another 18 million gluten-sensitive (roughly 3 million having Celiac disease), resulting in a market of roughly 30 million consumers, plus their friends and families.

Gibney’s experience was a prime example of a key bit of advice from Chris Miller, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Innovation Focus: “Find a problem in the world worth solving and make it yours to solve.” He continued, “Innovation is an innate human skill; it’s just that some are better at it than others.”
One speaker represented a company recognized for its innovation efforts. Greg Klein (no relation to Laurie Klein), executive vice president of marketing and R&D with Sadler’s Smokehouse, explained some of the secrets behind his company’s success. Driving its growth has been education and sampling, proper sizing, pricing, packaging and incentives, plus the extended shelflife available from HPP technology, which has allowed the products a 60-day shelflife. Proper sizing has allowed the company to meet the needs of everyone, from caterers (with a 50lb product) to the average family need of a product at the $19.99 price point, even down to a $9.99 product -- which possesses added distribution potential.
Pricing of new products may prove crucial to product launches, as the economy continues to struggle. In fact, Lynn Dornblaser and Dave Jago, directors of the custom solutions group with Mintel International, noted there is a growing opportunity in targeting less-affluent consumers. In addition, the pair explained lessons learned from successful products and from introductions that met with less-than-ideal results. Their recommendations and observations included:

* Leverage existing technology to create something unexpected but not unfamiliar.
* Challenge consumer assumptions.
* Remove the sense of “punishment;” make the brand one consumers are happy to display.
* Consumers are skeptical. Focus on the essentials.
* Create something consumers did not know they wanted but will make a habit.

That last advice echoed a sentiment of Andre Teixeira’s in discussing “Truly Global Strategies: “Consumers know what they want; however, they do not know what they will want.”  Companies, he explained, no longer have a choice about being global; it is now second only to “innovation” as a business mantra. While global may be happening everywhere, there is no such thing as a global consumer -- they are inherently local. So, global does not mean the end of local. His advice:
* Focus on the individual.
* Use modern, global methodologies.
* Understand local anthropology.
* Challenge rituals; explore habits.

What does he believe is the greatest challenge to marketers? Habit: 95% of behavior is habit, a factor which marketers almost completely ignore.
Kevin Higar, director of operator product development with Technomic, explored foodservice success strategies that could make their way into retail products. Notable areas of focus include price points (particularly in mini options); attention to flavor; bringing regional tastes to consumers who probably cannot recreate them; the perception that “local” requires less travel time to market; branding that creates trust and can be integrated into need-states and lifestyles; indulgence, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary; and familiarity, where consumers “know who you are,” which can make everything just a little bit better.

Andrew Dun, vice president of business development with Insight Beverages, delved into a topic garnering great attention: weight management. He noted 69% of U.S. consumers are overweight or obese, while 55% say “trying to lose weight” best describes them. When it comes to weight management products, taste and flavor will be a means of keeping consumers, but the price of entry will be the efficacy of the product.

Discussing a number of food regulation topics, Steven Steinborn, partner with Hogal Lovell LLC, began by noting, “In terms of gluten-free, the FDA is slowly doing the right thing, whereby the 2007 proposed rule is not yet final, but it is being used as a yardstick and has been re-proposed (with its 20ppm standard).” When it comes to front-of-pack labeling, he related, FDA is committed to the concept but has made few concrete steps; it has, in fact, been dropped from FDA’s priority list in favor of revamping the Nutrition Facts panel. If making a low-sodium claim, Steinborn advised, make it a 25% reduction or say nothing on the label. In fact, a pair of speakers at this year’s conference stood strong in defense of salt.
During a session devoted to “The Case for Salt,” Ron DeSantis, director of Continuing Education’s  Industry Solutions Group, and David Kamen, project manager, both with The Culinary Institute of America, explained, “Salt can spark a great food, but more than half of Americans (65%) are concerned about their sodium levels. Yet, many have little to no idea where the greatest sodium levels are in many diets: bread, for any number of consumers.” The average American is exceeding the 2,300mg recommendation for sodium, but little is added at the table or during cooking; the vast majority comes from manufactured foods.

Eric Sparks, defining how to protect the integrity of a finished product, explained the first factor is to define the gold standard—its key attributes; the art part (culinary and cooking techniques); common terminology (a vocabulary to be used in describing the product); established analytical data; its intended retherm (how it is going to be reheated and served) and finished application; and, of course, cost concerns. Most importantly, Sparks, the corporate director of R&D with Park 100 Foods, advises to always compare against that gold standard.  pf

The 2012 New Products Conference will be held September 9-12, at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, Fla. For more information, visit www.newproductsconference.com.