Wednesday morning in the office and we are having a debate.
"What colour sponge layers should we put in a Mr Kipling Unicorn slice?"
Someone ventures: "Pink, blue and yellow, of course".
Another: "Don’t be ridiculous – it’s turquoise, green and red". Everyone glares incredulously – this person has obviously never seen a unicorn.
The innovation manager is suddenly struck by a much more concerning question. "But… hang on, what does a unicorn taste like?" The room falls silent.
This is definitely not as straightforward to crack as a Mr Kipling lemon slice or pink French Fancy.
My seven-year-old daughter, Ruby, has everything "unicorn" and it happened as fast as you can say, "loom band". She lies under her unicorn bed cover at night and dreams in unicorn. It won’t last though – soon she’ll move on to the next big idea.
The real and serious point I’m making is that in the tough environment currently faced by the grocery industry, I firmly believe that the only way to grow is through innovation delivered with extreme pace and agility. This doesn’t just apply to product development; it extends to all aspects of the marketing mix.
Pace is more important than ever before
The food industry is facing unprecedented pressure. The issues are well documented. Commodity and exchange rate inflation are increasing the cost base, but major multiples are reluctant to raise prices as they compete with discounters.
This squeeze has caused many major FMCG companies to slash marketing spend and the effects have ricocheted through the marketing and communications industry. How do we get top and bottom-line growth in this environment and what role does marketing play?
In our fast-moving, changing world, it is no longer sufficient for brands to take 18-24 months to develop NPD and then launch one idea a year, supported with traditional media.
Take that long and your idea will already be out of favour with consumers and the competition would’ve probably usurped your once great concept.
Big trends arrive fast and move on faster than ever before. Our job as marketers, in collaboration with our partner agencies, is to anticipate them and jump into that gulf-stream as quickly as possible.
The "new normal" relies on an almost intangible combination of gut instinct, consumer understanding and experience to bring more products to market quicker.
My favourite consumer comment to date: 'Batchelors Super Noodle Pots… what a time to be alive!!!'
Take a famous brand like Batchelors, created in 1860 by William Batchelor. Dry packaged products are ideal for in-home consumption, but in declining sectors. By understanding the major food-to-go trend and consumers’ desire for on-the-go snacking, we re-invented the brand into "portable pot snacks".
The sweet-spot is to aim for what we now call "near-in innovation" – innovation that is highly intuitive to the consumer, firmly rooted in the brand promise – in this case, "Super Noodle Tasty" – and leverages and exploits a market tailwind.
The early stages of the launch of Batchelors Super Noodles Pots have been implemented via a more innovative social media and in-store marketing model. When you are on to a great idea, consumers swarm around it and digital forums allow the news to spread like wildfire, creating a cult following.
My favourite consumer comment to date: "Batchelors Super Noodle Pots… what a time to be alive!!!"
We have made a fundamental cultural shift in Premier Foods and have challenged our agencies to do the same.
Driving early awareness through digital channels has also given us a fantastic live feedback loop. Thanks to Asda's Facebook page, for example, we've picked up new Super Noodles flavour suggestions including Cheeseburger, and even Prosecco & Mushroom.
The second dimension of the early marketing plan has been in-store. We have found that making a virtue of distinctive brand assets - blue/yellow split packaging design and the Super Noodles logo - along with in-store stock pressure has driven very fast awareness and trial.
This grassroots launch model has helped us build early mental and physical availability and as the franchise grows, we will supplement it with more tablet-ready mass media, minimising risk and cost in the early days.
Moving fast means a change in attitudes
A critical ingredient of successful product and marketing innovation within the food industry is that it must be done with significant pace and agility.
In the Batchelors example we worked closely with our strategic global partner, Nissin Foods, to go from "Idea to shelf" in just 120 days. In tandem, we also worked with our agency partners to rapidly shoot creative assets for fast deployment.
Pace and agility – what does that really mean? Let’s explore the organisational consequences of that for a minute. To enable the momentum required to win, we have made a fundamental cultural shift in Premier Foods and have challenged our agencies to do the same.
It required a gargantuan attitudinal change: we have had to move from "that’s not possible", to "what needs to be true for us to deliver this?"
It’s a leap of faith for management and teams alike - lean approval processes replace cumbersome sign-offs, empowerment versus control and encouragement of a more entrepreneurial approach.
Ask yourselves: what’s the next unicorn slice in your business? And what colour will the sponge be?
Helen Warren-Piper is marketing director at Premier Foods