Innovation ain’t easy. For starters, it requires something precious that all consumer product brands must work hard to achieve — trust. And once that trust is finally won, brands naturally tend to stick with the relative safety of the known. Instead of leaping forward with profound innovations — which, after all, could inadvertently alienate those hard-won loyalists — they play it safe and move sideways.
How, then, can CPG brands innovate and meet consumer need even as they leverage their existing levels of consumer trust? Like I said, it ain’t easy. A case in point is the way in which restaurant brands like TGI Fridays, Starbucks, Nathan’s Famous, White Castle and Chi Chis, to name a few, offer iterations of their products in grocery stores. While these brands enjoy distinct advantages, many of these offerings can be found only in the frozen-food aisle, which makes delivering on expected product quality a challenge. Moreover, an important part of enjoying food in a restaurant is the experience and the environment: the servers, the music, the decor and the people you’re eating with. Like consumer trust, the experience that goes along with your brand bears a huge value. While I understand that such approaches can be hard to resist, I bet companies can push further.
Let’s flip the tables — smart CPG brands can offer something new and innovative (while maintaining their consumers’ trust) by simply doing the reverse of the frozen spinoff. Instead of offloading your brand to an inert environment, you animate it in a brick-and-mortar setting replete with servers, decor, music and friends. Bear in mind, I’m not referring to flagships along the lines of M&M’s Stores or Chobani Yogurt bars, which are essentially write-offs that offer certain advantages but are under no real pressure to make money. I’m talking about investing in something innovative and profitable, with the potential to go big — I’m talking national or even international. The key is to figure out how to bring consumers an experience they can’t get by just buying your products at Dollar Tree, Shoprite or, heaven forbid, Amazon. Let’s transform these CPG brands into a destination.
Heinz is an example of a company that could pull this off. Famous on six continents, the company has tremendous heritage, trust and awareness that it has yet to fully leverage. Heinz can start by taking advantage of three major food trends.
Start with customization. Across the U.S., we see restaurants such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Subway riding the fast-casual wave as they allow their fans to create their own meals. Another example of this is the rise of “fixin’s” bars in convenience stores such as Maverik, ampm and Corner Store.
Next is the ongoing globalization of cuisine. From the coasts to Middle America and beyond, flavors are blending. Latin and Asian influences in particular are on trend, with chipotle and Sriracha popping up all over. Earlier this year, Heinz announced the release of a product that combines classic American ketchup with Sriracha, a flavor that used to be known only to epicures fond of browsing Asian grocery stores. It may be hard to find, but Heinz is touching on a big opportunity here.
The third trend is simple authenticity. Heinz has been around since 1869 and is one of the most trusted brands in the world. What kid doesn’t like ketchup?
Leveraging this consumer trust and riding the tails of these three food trends, I believe that Heinz can move beyond line extensions and into the world of retail destinations, and break new ground — literally. Retail locations could help the Heinz brand truly own “customization of flavor.” Imagine walking into a fast-casual sandwich place called “Flavors 57.” Like the menus at Chipotle and Five Guys, the Flavors 57 menu would offer creative spins on burgers, dogs, hoagies, falafels, croque madames, banh mis, tortas, you name it. (Oh, and fries of course.) It would all be made in front of you with any fresh toppings you want. After you get your meal, you walk over to the “Heinz Saucing Station.” Fifty-seven sauces? Exactly. Take that Arby’s.
There would be 10 types of ketchup, branded mustard, mayo, relish, chutney, tahini, salsa, hot sauce, tartar sauce, cheese sauce, peanut sauce, steak sauce, secret sauce, Limited Time Only sauce and, of course, Awesome Sauce.
The idea here is not to spotlight Heinz, but to point to the potential of maximizing under-leveraged — but highly trusted — brands. One could say much the same for the likes of Sabra, Applegate Farms, Kashi and many more. If IKEA can serve meatballs, why can’t Trader Joe’s open its own QSRs?
Innovation ain’t easy. But it can come from anywhere. Even a tomato.
David Weinberger is vice president and director of engagement at CBX, the brand agency and retail design consultancy. Reach him via e-mail or at the Twitter handle @weinbergerdave.
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