Unwrapping Food Innovation: What are the Challenges?

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Innovation within the UK’s food sector is most certainly alive and well, creating a new breed of consumers with an insatiable appetite for the next ‘big thing’ from food companies.

We’ve become a generation of consumers demanding instant gratification, which has driven the industry’s rate of innovation steadily upwards and set customer expectation levels at an all-time high.

Gone are the days when we only had a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or porridge oats to choose from for breakfast. These days, customers are virtually paralysed by a plethora of options, ranging from avo smash on artisanal sourdough, acai smoothie bowls and cereal-only restaurants (you’ll find them in Shoreditch amongst a sea of bearded hipsters) to organic, Fairtrade, single origin craft coffee, Belvita breakfast biscuits, Middle Eastern shakshuka and ‘doughssants’ and ‘cruffins’, a cross between a croissant and a doughnut or muffin, respectively. Food innovation has scaled to dizzying new heights (and that’s only breakfast we’re talking about!)

The days of men in white lab coats have long gone…

But it’s not just consumers who’ve changed, so too has the definition of innovation. Ask people what they tend to think about when they hear the word ‘innovation’ and for most, the image of men in white lab coats developing the latest drug immediately springs to mind. Yet, these days, it’s an image that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Today, innovation touches all industries and businesses, driving them to consistently be at the very top of their game, push new boundaries, foster a culture of learning and find new ways of delivering a greater return on their investment. And the food industry is no exception.

However, as with most opportunities, food innovation isn’t without its challenges for companies striving to become the next innovation master machine. Here are just three of them: 

1. Constantly having to reinvent the wheel – most food companies are under considerable pressure to come up with the next big thing within their category against the backdrop of Silicon Valley-style ‘movers and shakers’ who are constantly challenging the status quo. Furthermore, there’s also the added pressure of seeing so many other companies introduce the latest fad, only to see it fail. The stakes are high.

2. Catering for increasingly aware and knowledgeable consumers – as mentioned earlier, today’s customers are a whole new breed and more switched on than ever before. They’re more particular about what they put into their bodies and knowing the journey their food has taken before reaching their plate. They also want cleaner labels and are favouring more sustainably-produced foods, as well as natural, whole and ‘free-from’ options (such as gluten, wheat and dairy-free products), which has left many traditional food manufacturers having to have a major rethink…

3. Keeping up with the dynamically-changing industry – like most other sectors, the food industry is rapidly changing, making it tricky for food companies to not just get their ideas to market, but their ideas to market, on time. For instance, specific launch windows of opportunity can easily be missed due to the lengthy new product development processes associated with successfully taking a product from initial concept through to launch.

The way people think about food is also rapidly evolving. Traditional meal preparation and occasions have been literally blown out of the water in recent years with key developments, such as the advent of online ordering and delivery services, like HelloFresh, UberEATS, Deliveroo and Amazon Fresh. Conventional business models have been replaced by more dynamically changing ones in which collaboration and co-creations are the new order of the day, leveraging the latest technology to outperform the competition and enhance customer experience across multiple touch points.

While there’s always been a place at the table for innovation within most food companies, it’s a becoming an increasingly important priority for most. They must strive to stay ahead of the curve, delight their customers and carve out a larger slice of the market for themselves. Yes, food innovation does involve challenges, but used in the right way, it’s also the secret ingredient to helping food companies transform themselves beyond recognition.

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