Innovation insights: Johnsonville

by Donna Berry
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When Andria Long, vice president of innovation and consumer insight for Johnsonville, joined the privately held company five years ago, she was ready to shake things up. As an experienced innovator in consumer-packaged goods, Long knows rejection is part of the process.

Caption: Andria Long, vice president of innovation and consumer insight, Johnsonville
Andria Long, vice president, innovation and consumer insight, Johnsonville

“Most people will tell you what you cannot do,” she said to a packed breakfast meeting of the Chicagoland Food & Beverage Network on Jan. 11, 2018. “You must have thick skin. Expect “no” a lot. But don’t stand for it.”

To be an innovator you must have tenacity and courage to keep going.

“Innovation is risky. Failure rates are high,” she said. “You must be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and using your best judgement. You are not always going to have the answers.”

Long explained how marketers have access to the exact same data. What you need to do is decide how to use that data to be different.

“You need to disrupt, challenge and change,” she said. “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

She cautioned the audience by stating that the most common mistake is to have ideas.

“So many companies start the innovation process by having an ideation session,” Long said. “What you need to do is start with the consumer. Identify a need and then solve it. Create a point of difference that they are willing to pay more for.”

Another mistake companies make is working within their capabilities or what is feasible to get to market faster. Sometimes you need to outsource or invest to differentiate.

“You can go to co-manufacturers to get things done,” she said. “You don’t have to build infrastructure. Because if you don’t do it, someone else will.

Johnsonville entered the fully cooked refrigerated breakfast sausage category with a plastic recloseable package.
When Johnsonville entered the fully cooked refrigerated breakfast sausage category, there were questions about disrupting the conventional thinking on packaging, given the competition was in a box. Andria Long persisted that it had to deliver on what consumers wanted so the product launched in a plastic recloseable package. Today it’s a $36 million-dollar product line. 
 

“If there is no differentiation, there is no innovation,” she said. “Innovation does not start by copying someone else.”

She cited the example of when Johnsonville decided to enter the fully cooked refrigerated breakfast sausage category. There were questions about disrupting the conventional thinking on packaging, given the competition was in a box. Long persisted that it had to deliver on what consumers wanted so the product launched in a plastic recloseable package.

“It’s nice to see what you are buying,” she said. “And, after all, how often do you use all of the sausages at one meal?”

Today it’s a $36 million-dollar product line and one of the company’s many recent successes.

Johnsonville’s Flame Grilled Chicken Breasts took almost three years to develop.
Johnsonville’s Flame Grilled Chicken Breasts took almost three years to develop. The bar was set high to deliver a quality, flavorful, fully cooked chicken product after excelling for seven decades in sausage
 

Another is the new line of Flame Grilled Chicken Breasts, which debuted about a year ago and took almost three years to develop. The bar was set high to deliver a quality, flavorful, fully cooked chicken product after excelling for seven decades in sausage.

“It was outside of our core capabilities,” she said. “And we wanted to do it right.”

Everyone has failures. It’s important to learn from them.

“Embrace failure and learn from it,” she said. “Know what went right and what went wrong. Don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

Johnsonville is based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, while the company’s research and development functions, which Long helped establish, operates out of Chicago. She is very proud of the Chicago Innovation Center she helped design and staff. The collaborative work space that opened in March 2014 features a culinary kitchen, sensory and product development labs, consumer-feedback areas and more. Chicago was selected because of its proximity to suppliers, vendors, customers and talent.

“Our team is currently about six strong,” she said. “The Chicago community is great. We have access to strong culinary talent. And it’s really great to be within walking distance of some of our strategic partners.”

So what new products are in the works for the company? Long was not willing to share such insight but when asked the question about plant-based foods, her response caught the audience’s attention.

“It’s on our radar. But we would not do it with the Johnsonville brand,” she said.

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