A year ago, the Prepared Foods New Products Conference centered on a theme of disruption in the food and beverage industry. This year, as the conference acknowledged its 35th assembly, a clearly defined theme was more elusive. Conference presenters emphasized leadership, transparency, efficient systems, updated food safety regulations, brand storytelling, package design... I’m losing my breath. Suffice it to say, industry disruption from recent years has fractured cohesive notions of where food and beverage markets are headed. That’s not to say we can’t pick up the trail of meaningful industry developments by examining the fragmented segments of what used to be fused industry mechanisms.

If a person was determined to uncover a broad concept that still permeates all areas of the food and beverage industry, she might find some satisfaction in the area of innovation. Nearly all presenters at the 2017 New Products Conference referred to innovation as fundamental to success, whether that be in research and development, marketing, sales or any other stage of bringing products to market.

A handful of presentations focused on innovation case studies that told the story of how companies and brands navigated treacherous paths to measured success. Tina Owens, Senior Manager-Sustainability & Procurement at Kashi, shared her company’s application of innovative packaging approaches and brand storytelling to bring new life to its line of cereals — a category segment that has experienced some degree of stagnation in recent years. The team at Kashi employed clean package design and featured profiles of their farmers on the back of cereal boxes. In doing so, the company linked its product directly to the human beings responsible for its essential components. The result has resonated with consumers who now feel a closer connection with a brand that shines a light on its people. 

Kashi went even further by helping to create the Quality Assurance International’s Certified Transitional program, which recognizes and incentivizes farmers to transition their land from conventional to organic growing methods. Kashi recognized that it needed more organic supply, and helped to develop an approach that allowed farmers, consumers and the Kashi business to come out on the winning end.

Although he has only been with the company for a few months, Barry Calpino, vice president of innovation at Conagra Brands, relayed the evolving culture of a billion dollar company that has made innovation a priority. Conagra Brands emphasizes agility in product development, and as an example, Calpino shared that the company purchased Frontera Foods in October of 2016 and delivered a line of Frontera-branded bowls and skillet meals in April of 2017. I’d say that’s working at a pretty good clip.

A panel of product developers and marketers operating in the meal solutions and meal-kit delivery categories shared insight from their experience, essentially settling on innovation as being the life-blood of their success. Michael McDevitt, Owner & CEO of Terra’s Kitchen, indicated that his company is simply listening to consumers and innovating to provide them with what they want.

Presentations from Taryn Forrelli, ND, Vice President of Innovation & Resident Nutritionist at Olly, and Tulin Tuzel, Chief Technology Officer at Sabra Dipping Company LLC, each focused on how an awareness of a brand’s essence while extending product lines into new positions is essential to continued brand success and health.

Encapsulating the mandate for innovation was Doug Hall, Founder of Eureka Ranch, who told the audience that leadership is responsible for establishing a culture where employees are not afraid to fail, and that it is within this culture that innovative ideas bubble to the surface. With an integrated, functional system and a culture of innovation, companies can’t go wrong. Just go, says Hall. Just go.