What Does Innovation Mean to You?

Posted April 26, 2022 by Alyssa Stahr

I recently sat in on the Food Entrepreneur Experience presented by Food Business News webinar for a number of reasons. 

  1. I work for a food and beverage creative agency, so I’m always looking for the latest and greatest in that category
  2. Zeroing in on the word “creative,” I love hearing what “disrupters,” for lack of a better buzzword, are doing to create something from nothing in our industry, thus spurring an intrigue about the Entrepreneur Experience section of the webinar
  3. The journalist in me was hoping for a scoop on new products

My wish list indeed came true, but a particular section of the webinar unexpectedly caught my attention. A question was asked to the presenters: How do you define innovation? The answer to this question should come as no surprise within an industry that sells itself on consumer demands, individualization, customization, clean labels, competitiveness and really, when it comes down to it, what we put into our bodies. The answer is just as individual as the industry: It depends on who you ask.

Shoba Murali, co-founder, CEO and president of the UCAN Company said that she thinks the shift of the consumer mindsight is the game changer in innovation.  “The second that food is the medicine — they don’t look at the back of the pack for ingredients alone. What are the functional benefits?” she said.

Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli agreed. “We’re now living in a world where it doesn’t just matter what’s in the package,” she said. Instead, consumers, especially millennials and Generation Z, are caring more about where products are sourced from. Kuli Kuli recently switched 80% of their packaging to consumer recycled plastic. It’s a margin hit and more expensive, according to Curtis, but the consumer feedback has been positive, as suspected.

Jon Kucinski, managing director of Kellogg Co.’s eighteen94 capital, said that innovation in our industry is a mix of the shift that Murali mentioned and the sourcing that Curtis spoke of — being very deliberate and mindful about about you’re putting in your body and why and environmental sustainability. “If you can hit on one or both it really is going to resonate where consumers are going; when you blow the doors off with a brand new product that’s going to change the way that people live their lives – creating a  new market – that’s really exciting,” he said.

Defining Better for You, Better for Me

Innovating within clean labels also means something different according to the individual. Better for you, better for me is a customized statement. Everyone has a different view on what that means, and “clean label” is a broader term that plays to a large segment of consumers. Innovation in this space depends on what product developers are trying to both achieve and the problems that they’re trying to solve.

Consumers, however, may not always tell product developers outright what they want. That’s where problem solving and “guardrails,” as Curtis puts it, comes in. Sustainably sourced packaging and cost balance is high on her must-have list. “We spend a lot of time researching supply chains and working as closely to farmers as we possibly can,” she said.

Murali agreed that while approaches may be different, as a brand you have to build out your plan and be authentic about what your market segment is. In a way, she said, you have to figure out what your brand is bringing to the table, whether it’s being a part of a niche market or providing a functional benefit to everyone.

“Am I capitalizing on a trend or am I trying to do something dramatically different? Trends are faster, but with functional benefits, be patient,” Murali said. “Changing consumer behavior takes time. You’ll have a lot of people saying it’s not going to work. But you’re trying to convert minds, and that’s not going to be easy.”

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