NEW ORLEANS — The time, effort, design and research and development that go into developing new food products mean one thing: Manufacturers can't rely on only knowing what consumers want today.
"The future is really getting to a place of knowing what they want before they have to ask for it," Tiana Holt, a principal at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve said during a panel at the Institute of Food Technologists conference on Monday. "By the time I have to ask, it's already too late."
Holt, who works with the famed futurist, was one of several individuals who told those in the food industry how they can use tools and insider knowledge to harness what's up and coming. Investors, analysts and trendspotters sat on the panel and talked about the best ways to innovate for consumers of the future.
'A very messy soup right now'
The food industry is full of people with great ideas, and many of those people have done research, prototyping and sensory testing to make those ideas reality. Lu Ann Williams, co-founder and director of innovation at Innova Market Insights, said some of these solutions have been worked on for years. There are some ideas — such as eggless mayonnaise — that she recalls seeing at IFT shows a decade ago.
The fact that these ideas are still being worked on and thought of as "new" doesn't necessarily mean the products behind the ideas are not desired by consumers, Williams said. It has much more to do with how the items are being marketed.
While a company may have an incredible product, it cannot go anywhere if nobody knows about it. And even if a big company is working toward a better-for-you item, it may not be successful because the small startups, which are not battling any stigma of unhealthy and processed food, are now often considered the thought leaders, Williams said.
"It's a very messy soup right now," she said.
Robert Blackman, sales leader of patent watchdog PatSnap, lamented that many people are conflating the terms "innovation" and "invention," two very different concepts. Both of these words represent the gap between human ingenuity and solving tangible problems.
Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer and managing director of venture-capital firm S2G Ventures, said with the vast majority of food companies losing market share — including 90 of the top 100 — figuring out who the trend leaders will be is wide open.
"Food manufacturers are still quite cautious," Krishnan said. "Food retailers are less cautious. They're willing to give shelf space that they wouldn't have done 20, 30 years ago potentially. ...That's leaving your opening for small, medium size brands to be, quote, innovative, however you define innovation. And I think those are the ones that are ... being more nimble, willing to formulate products quicker, willing just to try and fail quicker because they're all about growth."
And while growth may come to these small companies that can execute and market both their trustworthiness and aptitude, Williams predicted the big companies will eventually get that growth back.
"I really think for the next probably five years, seven years, maybe 10 years, these little small startups are really going to be the innovation lab for these big companies," she said. "And it'll be a lot driven through acquisition."
While it's easy to make grand projections and predictions, Williams said they should always be based in actual possibilities. After all, she said, it's not realistic for a new product to launch with sky-high sales goals. What can be projected has changed drastically with the times compared to 15 years ago.
"That would be my first advice is to change your expectations and figure out what is realistic going forward," Williams said. "And then figure out how you operate in that world."
"Food manufacturers are still quite cautious. Food retailers are less cautious. They're willing to give shelf space that they wouldn't have done 20, 30 years ago potentially. ...That's leaving your opening for small, medium size brands to be, quote, innovative, however you define innovation."
Chief investment officer and managing director, S2G Ventures
In addition to making the financial portion realistic, Williams said companies should look at something decidedly not sexy: Supply chain.
She recalled a journalist asking her a few years ago why manufacturers don't just swap stevia for sugar in their food. She asked him if he would consider doing that if he were making cookies. He responded 'No,' but then wondered why manufacturers don't just swap turbinado sugar for the refined version. Williams asked him where he might find a supply of the raw sugar large enough. And even if such a supply could exist, the way sugar is processed would likely need to undergo big changes.
"The supply chain that makes something really big or to create a big shift, you also have to have this [shift] apply there," Williams said. "Some things can only move so fast."
Harry Epstein, CEO of Quadrant Management Consulting, said when he looks at the future, he does something called backcasting as a sort of check on his vision. He'll assess a projection that is being made and then look back at what is being done now and is likely to be done in the near term to see if that projection makes sense.
Panelists said the food and agricultural industries are behind others in their collection, interpretation and reliance on data. However, starting to collect more data could help move the sector forward and enable it to better capitalize on trends.
Blackman said using artificial intelligence to sort through the data could help identify key trends.
"If you're using big data and analytics for biochemistry, for example, the data can start telling you what you should look at and what you should work on," he said. "And what's happening is you developed something called data relevancy where all this data starts to give you relevant information and direction."
But where can manufacturers find this data? Holt said consumers are becoming more willing to provide information for data analysis — like providing saliva samples for DNA analysis and talking to Siri and Alexa. Customization based on this data could be the future, but it won't be easy.
"When you look at personalization, we're talking about, 'This is the flavor that I want,' but why can't I look at food solutions that are more geared towards my genetic code and using technology to be able to provide those kinds of mass customization at scale?" she said. "It's the right thing for me, but I can produce that for everyone in this room and everyone, you know, in this convention center? ...That's kind of the challenge right now: How do you get the scale to do that? Because it's really complex and really expensive."
Holt stressed the biggest trends that are to come serve culture, consumers and showcase a company's best assets. And, she said, companies can very simply make the future they want.
"The best way to own the future is to create it," she said.