An executive perspective on consumer insights, the R&D process, packaging innovation and more. 

How can a company revitalize its innovation program—from consumer insights all the way through R&D and packaging? Prepared Foods put that question and others to Mario DiFalco, senior director of Innovation& New Ventures at Del Monte Foods Inc. In February, the Walnut Creek, Calif., company was recognized across three categories in a program sponsored by Product of the Year USA and its research partner Kantar TNS.

Product of the Year is the world's largest consumer-voted award for product innovation with this year seeing the largest number of participants to date. Winners are determined by the votes of 40,000 consumers in a nationally representative survey conducted by Kantar, a global leader in consumer research. This year marked the 12th year of the award in the U.S. and more than 30 years around the world.

Del Monte won for its Veggieful Veggie Bowls™ in the convenience meals category, Fruit Crunch Parfait™ in the snack cups category, and Contadina® Pizzettas in the frozen snack category. Previously, Del Monte has earned additional Product of the Year recognition for its Fruit & Oats™ in 2019 and Fruit Refreshers™ in 2017.  

A 24-year industry veteran, DiFalco served in food industry posts at PowerBar, Jelly Belly and The National Food Laboratory before joining Del Monte in 2010 as senior director of marketing, Tomato & Broth Business Units. He was promoted to his current post in 2012.

Prepared Foods: Congratulations on these recent awards! Can you share more of the innovation back story? What’s been happening behind the scenes within your group at Del Monte? 

Mario DiFalco: Historically, new products undergo lots of concept testing and travel through stage gates in a very linear process that really doesn’t have a lot of consumer feedback in the early stages of development. 

Starting about three years ago, the team embarked on a more agile approach to innovation, receiving more consumer and customer feedback to concepts and early prototypes early in the process. At the time we were also expanding our entrance into new categories such as frozen and refrigerated and wanted to find better, faster ways to bring great products to market. 

To do this, we implemented iterative learning and quicker consumer testing that allows us to receive earlier feedback so that we can improve, strengthen and pivot as needed.  It’s similar to how a lot of start-ups work and we benefitted from using this approach, while also having the resources of a large company given our 130+ year rich heritage. 

This new approach has allowed us to strip away three to six months off of our typical development timelines, bringing stronger ideas to market more quickly and cost-effectively.

PF: What else can you say about what triggered this dramatic shift in your approach?

DiFalco: During the past two-plus years, we’ve had great new executive leaders, who have led transformation within the company. Their focus has been on innovation as a growth driver and this unlocked the resources Del Monte’s cross-functional Innovation team needed to deliver unprecedented levels of innovation to the market.

At Del Monte, both R+D and Marketing both sit under our Chief Marketing Officer Bibie Wu, and we work closely together as one team. Since starting this journey, we’ve significantly changed how we bring products to market. In fiscal year 2016, just 13% of our project efforts were around new offerings. That went up to 40% in fiscal year 2018.

During the past three years we’ve tripled the amount of innovation initiatives, with 31 products alone launched in 2019. 

We also have revaluated who we bring in as new Innovation team members. For example, we need people who can think critically and make confident decisions on things that we might have never done before. This requires us to more strongly consider a candidate’s soft skills in addition to their past experience. 

PF: Looking ahead, how would you characterize the importance of this innovation change for Del Monte as a company?

DiFalco: For the last 130-plus years we have known our customers well and have been able to evolve our offerings to meet their needs. Innovation plays a key role as we also expand our products to a broader consumer base. 

As one of the original plant-based companies, we’ve always stood by our mission in making fruits and vegetables attainable and affordable to everyone. Our products are focused on helping our customers get their servings of fruits and vegetables in products that are delicious and convenient. 

Earlier this year, we released Del Monte’s “2020 State of Healthy Eating” study, which found that 86% of Americans say that eating fruits and vegetables is crucial to maintaining a healthy diet, but nearly half of Americans are worried about how to do so. That’s why we’re doubling down our efforts and continuing to find new ways to expand healthy snacks and meals with new innovations.

PF: Del Monte’s history, of course, has involved shelf-stable cans. Can you share a few thoughts on the challenges associated with branching out into new categories and new packaging? What was most challenging? What are you most proud of? 

DiFalco: Entering new categories with a new product innovation approach was challenging and we anticipated that. We had to establish relationships with many more buyers and category directors, while getting new teams up to speed. 

It was a big endeavor that took some time to really come together.  We’ve also needed to vastly expand our manufacturing base with new relationships with co-manufacturers that are helping us bring high quality products to market.

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