The Wall Street Journal has once again provided the food industry an 'innovation reality check' by questioning whether a peanut butter Pop-Tart is innovative (Dennis K. Berman, December 4, 2013, "A Riddle: Is Peanut Butter Pop-Tart an Innovation'"?)
Berman states that Kellogg's CEO John Bryant claims Gone Nutty Pop-Tarts represent innovation. He further comments that "most CEOs now spray the word innovation as it were an air freshener. A little spritz can't hurt" — and I couldn't agree more! I believe the term "innovation" has become a marketing buzzword instead of a reflection upon true creativity. It is also reflective of the copy cat mentality among marketing executives that represents a safe, low risk marketing approach. This conservative marketing approach explains the current focus on food product line extensions. The hidden message to subordinates behind CEO's touting innovation is quite the opposite — be CONSERVATIVE.
Popcorn chicken innovation obstacles
I remember leading the development of Popcorn Chicken at KFC, and found the marketing department running the opposite direction as fast as they could run. And once they did slow down to catch their breath, they treated Popcorn Chicken as a center-of-the-plate protein instead of a true snack menu item. Twenty years later, most QSR marketing teams understand the snack menu. As I have previously mentioned, I heard daily comments on how this product could never be successful — and it now tallies an estimated $1B in annual worldwide sales. I guess it takes just a little night vision to see the opportunities hiding in the unknown darkness.
Innovation terminology is ubiquitous
Berman further states that in 2007, 99 companies in the S&P 500 mentioned innovation in their third quarter earnings conference calls, and in 2013 that number expanded to 197! John Faraci, International Paper CEO says "The word is way overused" — and I agree! Berman also referenced how Red Robin executives and speakers used the words innovate or innovation 21 times to describe, variously, pepper hamburger buns, beer-can cocktails and beer milkshakes — and their stock is up 113 percent this year. As a footnote, I will agree with the innovation connotation of beer milkshakes — which I think they hit out of the ball park.
Recently, I reviewed almost 400 business card titles of people who work in the fast casual and QSR industries, and found about 75 different titles that use the word innovation. That's enough information for several future food innovation blogs.
Back to peanut butter Pop-Tarts
Using any food innovation success metric, I cannot endorse peanut butter Pop-Tarts as innovative. At best it is a new flavor line extension that I believe will be extremely successful for Kellogg.
The 2014 Food Innovation Workshops titled: "THE TWELVE (12) PRINCIPLES PILARS OF FOOD INNOVATION: How to Contribute New Product Innovation Value to Your Company" will be offered locally across the United States and in the Philippines/SE Asia. The course is based in two Harvard Business Press books that have been applied to the food industry. To pre-register or to volunteer your company as a host site, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-471-1443. The first workshops will be held in Denver (Feb. 24-26, 2014), San Diego (March), and Chicago (May).
Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC’s development team of “Popcorn Chicken”, now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi.