Friday, October 14, 2011

How does a new product land on your grocerie's shelve?!?

As some you know, or not, I graduated in Food Chemistry from McGill University.  I worked for two summers as a Quality control student at Kraft Canada. Yes yes yes. The one that you see when you are waiting in the traffic on the 40 ;) The one that produces the infamous Kraft Dinner and Cheez Whiz. 

There is two Kraft plants in Montreal. One in Mount-Royal and another one near the Olympic stadium on Pie-IX.  Mount-Royal's plant is the largest one in Canada producing Kraft Dinner, Mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, Peanut Butter, Salad Dressing, BBQ sauces, Philadelphia cream cheese, Cheez Whiz and Singles. The other plant is a bakery cooking the yummy oreos and soda crackers.

After my graduation, I was lucky enough to score a position in Research and Development in the cheese department which is based in Mount-Royal.  That is, I am taking care of the Natural Cheese (Petit Québec, Cracker Barrel), Process Cheese and Cream Cheese. I am mostly responsible for innovations or new products.

So how does a new product land in your grocery? Here is how it all works:

1- The idea or the concept has to be first developed in order to come up with a new product.  How? By observing what is in trend right now.  South American? All Natural? Fast and easy meal?
Also, observing the competition might give a clue in order to keep up with them! They developed a new snack size cheese? Well, we are going one step further and might think of a snack size cheese with added value such as probiotic or nutrients! A brainstorm of ideas is done by consumer insights, culinary research scientists and such.

2- From the idea, the marketing team try to create a concept to attract the consumers. But first, which consumers do they want? Everyone? Kids? Moms? Teens? And there, what more can this product offer compared to the others in market? How should it be presented? The concept is developed and shown to some consumers to see what they think of it, are they interested? Will they buy it?

3 & 4 - The concept is given to the R&D folks (me!).  We first need to see if it is possible or not to do it with our present equipment in the plant. If not, how much do we need to invest in order to achieve this? Then, depending on the request, we may need to reach out to different suppliers (flavors, packaging, equipment, etc) to start developing. If we are going with a new flavor, we may want to start working in smaller scale (benchtop or similar to your kitchen). If the the marketing is happy with it, we go up one notch and may go into a pilot plant (not as large as the actual plant but do produce more than the benchtop samples).  Maybe we will go to consumer testing to see their overall liking and their purchase intent. Consumer testings may be done internally within the company or externally with potential customers. If they like it, awesome! Let's try it in the plant.  The scaling up process is not as simple as it might look like.  The product may not react the same when you play with it in the kitchen compared to all the parameters and variations in the plant. We have to troubleshoot and understand every single issue that may come up during a plant trial (moisture is too high, texture is too liquid, product is not reacting like it should be...). That is where our scientific background and knowledge of the process and product come in handy.  Most R&D folks have a chemical engineering or food science background. 

5. Woot woot! The marketing and the consumers are satisfied with the product and the trials have been all successful! It is time to put it in the market! While we were working on the product, a whole team comprising of finance, graphics, regulatory, nutrition were doing parallel work to achieve optimal timing for the product to be on the shelves! The packaging part is also extremely important! It provides not only the visual appearance but also the protection and properties for the shelf life of a product! Product R&D and Packaging R&D have to work hand in hand to launch a strong product! One last trial in the plant is done to produce sales samples. These latter will be shown to the managers of your grocery. If they like it, they will include it in their shelves.  And depending on how they think it will sale, they might choose to put it at the bottom where no one can really see it or at the eye level if they think it will be a hit! Once we have their go, we start producing like crazy to fill up the pipeline ie give enough products to fill the groceries of the countries!

What is being shown and explained here is very general. There a much more steps and work involved in the creation of a product!!! And it is also only a facet of our work as R&D.  We also contribute to the maintenance of the brand, reformulations of the product and any troubleshooting of the process or final product just to name a few.

The development of a new product takes usually anywhere from 1 year to a few years depending on the complexity.  Line extensions featuring new flavors of an existing product or change of format are the most simple.  Developing a whole new product never made in the past and necessitating extensive research and trials can be complex and might required the help of experts and researchers specialized in a given area. 

Typically, there are tens of thousands new products launched every year. However, not even a hundred remains on the shelves after one year. The competition is fierce.  There is no mercy.  Every company have to be creative while being realistic on what a consumer needs. 

Here is a link to one of my favorite documentation of all time explaining all the facets of the food industry, look for 'Battle to Get on your Plate' :

And I am proud to show you my first baby: A reformulated Cheez Whiz Tex Mex Jalapeno! Much more bolder and spicier than the old version. Perfect for your Mexican parties or even Hockey season with loads of beer! You can find it at your nearest grocery store :)

And no, your Cheez Whiz doesn't start out green and yes there is real cheese in it! And do you know how the idea of process cheese started? And how is it made? That, my friend will be in another post :)

Stay tuned!


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