ConAgra shares insights on snack innovation

by Monica Watrous
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David Simply Seeds is ConAgra's new line of reduced-sodium roasted sunflower seeds with no artificial flavors or preservatives. 

CHICAGO — ConAgra Foods, Inc. is launching David Simply Seeds, a line of reduced-sodium roasted sunflower seeds with no artificial flavors or preservatives. Varieties include lightly salted, sour cream and onion, and cracked black pepper. The range was developed in response to consumer demand for products with simple, recognizable ingredients, said Jill Dexter, brand manager.

“It wasn’t something David consumers were specifically asking for, but as we looked at our innovation pipeline and what was happening in broader salty snacks, we thought it was worth looking at for David,” Dexter told Food Business News a sister publication of MEAT+POULTRY. “Nuts and seeds already have a pretty healthy halo around that category in general… It has protein, antioxidants and nutritional benefits, so we felt like all-natural and lower sodium as an alternative to the core range would be a nice extension.”

David Simply Seeds were unveiled at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, held May 24-26 in Chicago. Other recent snack innovations from ConAgra include new Slim Jim meat sticks with regionally inspired flavors, such as New York Buffalo Style, Philly Cheesesteak and Cali Taco.

“On the Slim Jim side, our consumers are really focused on flavor — extreme flavor, flavor variety,” Dexter said. “So we’re introducing our Flavors of America platform.”

ConAgra also unveiled new Slim Jim meat sticks with regionally inspired flavors, such as New York Buffalo Style, Philly Cheesesteak and Cali Taco.

Also new in the Slim Jim line are Big Boss meat and cheese packs, weighing in at 3 oz. and providing about 20 grams of protein. Varieties include beef with cheddar and pepperoni with mozzarella.

“It’s another option if you’re a little bit hungrier, if you’re skipping lunch, if you know you’re going to be busy for a few hours and want something that’s going to keep you full,” Dexter said. “We try to offer various different pack sizes and sizes of our sticks to address any of those particular needs. The Big Boss is exciting because when you think about a bag of jerky, that can be 2.5 to 3 oz., and this is right in the sweet spot, but that on-the-go convenience is a big thing, certainly in snacking and with that c-store consumer.”

Product development for ConAgra’s snack brands may take between two and three years, depending on the flavor or concept, Dexter said.

“Our process tends to be we have a concept idea as a brand team and we pull in our research team, we involve culinary, we have our consumer insights team, and sometimes we include our agency partners, so creative folks that are familiar with flavor trends in categories outside of what we live in, and we have a broad brainstorming session,” she said. “We put everything on the white board and start talking through technical complexity. We might do some consumer validation, such as focus groups or a flavor sort to help us narrow the funnel, and then we bounce it over to R&D and say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s start putting some of this together on the bench.’ We pull in our flavor partners and start mixing things up.”

ConAgra introduced Slim Jim Big Boss meat and cheese packs in beef with cheddar and pepperoni with mozzarella varieties.
Next comes internal testing, she said.
“We’ll do some cuttings internally to determine if this is what we think taco should taste like, or burrito or dill pickle,” Dexter said. “We do ultimately do consumer validation, such as a sensory panel, or we’ll talk to some of our heavier users and do a flavor liking or quantitative validation.”

Whether ConAgra will offer additional clean label options across its portfolio of brands remains to be seen, but Dexter said the trend is “top of mind” for the organization.

“A nut and seed consumer may be looking for some of those harder hitting health claims … versus maybe for my Slim Jim consumer, that doesn’t matter; he just wants something that’s going to fill him up,” Dexter said. “I would say as a company we are looking at all of those things, looking at broader trends, looking at specific consumers for our brands and finding the optimal points on that triangle of ease, joy and health, where we want to innovate and develop and maybe reformulate. So we’re looking at that broadly as an organization.”

Since Sean Connolly joined ConAgra as chief executive officer last year, the company’s approach to innovation has become more rigorous.

Since Sean Connolly joined ConAgra as CEO last year, the company’s approach to innovation has become more rigorous, Dexter said.

“I think the rigor behind our new product ideas is even more focused on, ‘Is there a consumer need? Is there an obstacle or barrier today, and do we have a brand or product idea that can address that?’” she said. “So, we’re really making sure we have the right insights in place to make sure the product is going to be successful in market. And then, the customer piece as well. Consumer insight driven, absolutely, but working with our retailers and bigger customers to dovetail that piece in as well.

“I’m really excited about the path we’re on for innovation, new product, even base brand renovation and how committed we are to that.”

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