Keeping products relevant

by Bryan Salvage
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Those involved in retail new product development know that creating an innovative, successful new product doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a lot of listening to end-user needs, rigorous research, tenacious consumer testing and product fine-tuning before launch. And as consumer tastes are constantly changing, new product development is akin to shooting at a moving target.

It stands to reason that once a new product is finally introduced and becomes successful, some companies will adopt the policy of “don’t rock the boat”.....or don’t reformulate or change this product in any way. But how long can a successful new product remain relevant?

Of course, that depends on the product. But forward-thinking retail companies strive to build business through reformulating or creating new products/line extensions on an ongoing basis. For example, Sara Lee’s Hillshire Farm brand initially launched ultra-thin lunchmeat in 1989, in a box package, Tim Smith, director of marketing, Hillshire Farm, relayed to me. “In 2002, the brand introduced the Hillshire Farm Deli Select Ultra Thin lunchmeat in the GladWare tub as is currently found on shelves, reiterating our commitment to providing quality lunchmeat packaged for premium freshness,” he adds. “For both launches, we aimed to bring a ‘closer to deli’ experience to consumers with fresh and thinly sliced lunchmeat offerings.”

Not only did this evolving product do well for the company, but also some in the industry claim it revitalized the retail pre-sliced lunchmeat category. Many “me, too” products have since joined the fold, which is further testimony to its success.

Sara Lee’s Ball Park brand also broke new ground when it opted to incorporate Angus beef in its line of hot dogs, relays Aaron Alt, general manager of the Ball Park brand. He explains Angus beef has always been a popular choice when it came to steaks and burgers, so the Ball Park brand decided to offer consumers the opportunity to enjoy this “great quality and flavor” in a hot dog.”

“Consumers continually look for different varieties, and it’s our job to listen and provide a variety of products to meet their needs,” Alt says about the idea to create this product. “Americans consume nearly 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, and by introducing our line of Angus products, Ball Park was giving consumers something new for the entire family to enjoy.”

Now, in getting back to veteran products — once sales become stagnant or begin to slip, it should be the time to take immediate action to see if that product’s sales can be revitalized. Some businesses, however, will blame the sagging economy for any sales downturn and will let things slide hoping for an eventual turnaround. Instead, all companies, regardless of size, should try to determine why this product’s sales are slipping and attempt to right the course as soon as possible by getting product feedback from the end-user.

Many larger companies incorporate sophisticated consumer panels, which are invaluable, but smaller companies have limited budgets and may not be able to create and maintain their own panels. Third-party test kitchens could help out. They can prepare products, stage the product test and possibly assist in putting together relevant questions to ask the consumers. Advertise for consumer panel participation through your website or local newspapers. If possible, use scanning data to identify some heavy users of your products and ask them to participate. Offering a nominal stipend might help heighten their interest to participate.

Pleasing some or most of the five senses is one way to help ensure new or reformulated product success. I recently visited a major processor that decided to make some changes on one of its decades-old mainstay products. One of several important changes included incorporating a more natural look for the product, which my source said was received more favorably than anticipated.

Some processors have found success by creating line extensions of veteran products featuring different flavors, product sizes, diameters, thicknesses and more convenient packaging benefiting freshness and shelf life. Maybe adding a smoked sausage item to a line previously not featuring smoked products might lure in new consumers and increase sales. Maybe adding a natural casing to your hot dog or sausage line could help increase sales. Some consumers like feeling and hearing the 'snap' when biting into products in a natural casing.

The most important step is to routinely tap into your end-users to learn what they want in product tastes, appearances and more and then determine if reformulating an existing product or creating a new product or line extension could be a worthwhile venture.

A product launched in 1995 may have been relevant and successful then, but perhaps it isn’t now. Could such a product benefit from some new flavor or packaging change? Now is the time to work with some of your end-users to learn how they think your product can be improved.

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