In this episode, we wanted to find out: “How is the CPG industry innovating to meet consumer demands?” Ranjani Varadan, VP of R&D at Impossible Foods, discusses how her team gets consumers to buy in to their future-forward vision. Jodi Benson explains why her team had customers write break-up letters to Yoplait. Jeff George from Hain Celestial Group also shares how his team has pivoted to face challenges caused by COVID-19.
- Watch Jodi Benson’s fireside chat from Impact 2019 to learn more about innovation at General Mills.
- Find out how Hain Celestial Group quickly began production of hand sanitizer in US Facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.
This episode is sponsored by Cooper Perkins, the engineering practice that converts inventive ideas into innovative products. Check out their article on page six of our most recent issue of Pointers, InnoLead’s thought leadership PDF. In the article, you’ll learn more about how Cooper Perkins engineers navigate technology and product development. You can find their contribution and more at innovationleader.com/pointers.
Jodi Benson: If we understand who we’ll be serving, I think we can create better innovations for the future.
Ranjani Varadan: If you’re not open to trying things, you’re not really innovating.
Jeff George: Consumers seek the need for immunity and feeling safe.
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. In each episode, we ask a central question about the things that make change hard at large organizations. Then we get answers from experts about how innovators can overcome these challenges and make an impact. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.
In this episode, we wanted to know: How is the CPG industry innovating to meet consumer demands?
CPG — or consumer packaged goods — describes any product you buy that requires routine replacement or replenishment. So, shaving cream that you have to replace when you run out and your favorite salty snack both fall in this category. Some companies sell multiple types of products under the CPG umbrella — from food to personal care.
No matter the item, companies in the CPG space have to keep products relevant or create new offerings that shoppers will buy again and again. General Mills, founded way back in 1928, is one company that tries to keep tabs on customers preferences and shopping patterns for different demographics. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z all spend their money differently.
Jodi Benson: When we look at the future, if we understand who will be serving, I think we can create better innovations for the future because lots of things will change that we can’t predict. But I always think of demographics as being our destiny.
Kaitlin Milliken: That was General Mills Chief Innovation Officer, Jodi Benson. During a conversation at InnoLead’s Impact event, she shared how customer insight helped her team launch Yoplait Oui, a French-style yogurt. At the start of the process, Jodi’s team was given a big mandate: Create a $50 million business in the first year. To fulfill that brief, her team turned to Yoplait’s former customers, asking them to write breakup letters and explain why they had switched to a different brand of yogurt.
Jodi Benson: This letter that the consumer wrote to us was, “Hey, I gotta come clean. I’ve been having an ongoing affair with Chobani. I’d love to choose only you, but something is missing. Chobani fills a void that you don’t. But the good news is, our relationship can be repaired.” The answer of what we did wrong was, basically, what the answer was, “You stopped really dressing up for me. There’s no wow. It’s just the same thing all the time. And it’s a bit for everybody. It doesn’t feel very much like it’s for me. How can you keep it fresh, be more spontaneous?”
Kaitlin Milliken: The letters helped General Mills reimagine the product. According to Jodi, her team had traditionally thought of Yoplait as a fridge-staple for the whole family. But what customers were actually looking for was something more personal.
Jodi Benson: What if we thought about creating a category that was based on the current consumer food values? Around simple and pleasure? … [Creating a] ‘for me’ kind of moment for women?”
Kaitlin Milliken: After 632 design iterations, the team reached the final product. If you haven’t had it, Oui yogurt is sold in individual, single-serving glass pots. The packaging makes it feel special when compared to the standard, plastic used by other brands. It also makes this great sound when you eat it with a metal spoon. [CLANKING SOUND]. Oui ultimately generated $140 million dollars worth of sales its first year on the shelf.
Oui shows the benefit of taking a well known product, and refreshing it to meet a new palate. But what about projects that are brand new and have a longer R&D life cycle? To find out, we turned to the meat alternative brand, Impossible Foods. We’ll be back with Ranjani Varadan, the Vice President of R&D at the company, after this break.
So 2020… It’s not exactly going down the way any of us expected. And in many organizations innovation teams have had to reinvent themselves, all while dealing with new constraints, like tighter budgets and hiring freezes. Our team is hosting an online event for innovators to put their heads together and tackle some of their biggest challenges in this moment. We have speakers from Fitbit, Teach for America, Kaiser Permanente, and more. There will be three tracks designed for corporates, government leaders, and nonprofit innovators. You can get a two-day ticket for July 15 and 16 — or just join us for one day. To learn more, visit innovationleader.com/chartinginnovation.
And we’re back with Ranjani Varadan. Ranjani is the Vice President of Research and Development at Impossible Foods, a company that creates plant-based alternatives to meat. The company may be best known for their Impossible Burger, an item that hit the menu at Burger King in 2019. Ranjani has been at the company since 2011 and has also held roles as a Senior Scientist and Director of Protein.
You work at Impossible Foods. Can you tell us about what the R&D strategy is, and what your team’s mission is?
Ranjani Varadan: Impossible Foods was founded with the mission to completely transform the global food system — so to make means of meat production far more sustainable than it is today. And so for R&D, our goals are to create the same type of experience you know, to make a product — today beef — that delivers the same experience to consumers. So it has to look similar to beef. It has to handle similar to beef. It has to work in all of the recipes that anyone might use for beef. And it has to taste like beef.
Kaitlin Milliken: So that’s really a revolutionary product and a big goal. How does approaching that on the day to day look like?
Ranjani Varadan: So there is a lot of work that we do to deconstruct the meat itself. So you know, we take a lot of time to understand. Why does meat smell the way it does? Why? Why is there you know, this explosion of flavors when you’re cooking meat on a griddle or a grill? Why is there a change in texture? Why does it behave this way when I bite into it? So we have to understand that.
We do a lot of measurements, understand what ways we need to be measuring these things. There’s a lot of sensory tests and perception tests we do to understand how people are responding to these different types of foods. And then there is the part of the lab where we have to try to reconstruct. So, you know, we have to make ourselves a toolbox of our toolkit of plant based ingredients and understand how we put these things together to get to the target.
The day is, you know, full of experimentation. There’s discussions, there may be whiteboard discussions, brainstorming sessions. There’s meetings to update the team on where people are. And then there’s also a lot of taste tests that go on.
Kaitlin Milliken: So you mentioned that there are a lot of different things happening in the R&D process from reconstruction, to talking to people to get a sense of how things taste. Who’s on your team, how big is it? And is it scientists, ethnographic research, or some other combination?
Ranjani Varadan: R&D has about 110 or so people? We have a team that’s very diverse both in terms of background, technical background that people are bringing to the table. So we have biochemists like myself, we have polymer chemists, material scientists, food chemists, sensory and perception scientists who understand how to measure or think about perception of foods.
We have chemists, analytical chemists. And then of course, we work with several people in the business side of the organization, whether it’s consumer insights to understand what consumers want in the product. We work with people in nutrition and health to understand that, and with the regulatory team, for example, to know what is the implication of using a certain type of ingredient.
Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned, sort of the regulatory element, which is really interesting, new scientific developments, especially in food. There’s getting working with the FDA and preparing for that. How did your team approach that type of working with regulators or understanding regulations?
Ranjani Varadan: Impossible Foods is very uncompromising in terms of the product experience that we are trying to create. So, if we are making ground beef then we have to deliver the same authentic experience that I talked about. But also we want to be very responsible about the nutrition we replace. So we target delivering the same or better nutrition as the animal product, and it has to be completely safe for people to consume. So we do a lot of work in-house to understand what are the implications of using certain ingredients. But also when we are working with other vendors who supply us with the ingredients we make sure they are following best practices, and not just for safety, also sustainability.
And as far as working with the FDA goes, the ingredient we’re using that brings the great taste and color of meat to our product is called soy-like hemoglobin, which is a protein that’s responsible. So hemoglobin is the protein responsible for the red color in your blood. And the soy-like hemoglobin we use in our product is a plant version of a similar protein. We produce it recombinantly in yeast, similar to a beer-brewing process.
We are very transparent about how we produce this ingredient. We’re transparent about what else is going into the product and also very cognizant of perception around the use of genetically modified ingredients for example, and specifically for like hemoglobin we took the initiative to demonstrate that it is safe for consumption. So we provided a wealth of data to the FDA to demonstrate safety. And after reviewing all of that, the FDA issued a no-questions letter. So the ingredient is identified as safe. For some ingredients that impart color, the FDA requires that you also provide information for it to be approved as a color additive. And we went through that process as well and we got approval for it’s safe use.
Kaitlin Milliken: Bringing a product like the Impossible Burger to market. That’s a long process. Can you talk a little bit about the product origin story?
Ranjani Varadan: Ground beef we selected as our first target, because it’s a very iconic American product, right? There’s so much cultural association with ground beef. People will grill it all summer, and you have your friends and family over when you’re doing that. And of course, it’s a very big market. So that was the first product we decided to make. Pat [Brown] himself started impossible foods in 2011. That came out of his thought process that really there has to be a better way to produce meat. Because, you know, animal farming has a very big footprint on the planet. It’s not sustainable. There’s billions of people on the planet, there’s going to be more and more people who want to eat meat. Using 30 to 50 percent of the landmass on Earth, for producing this type of food, it’s not sustainable, because biodiversity is just declining at a very rapid rate. Like in the last 40 years, we’ve lost half of the wildlife species on the planet. That’s alarming. So the idea for the company itself was Pat Brown, and he started the company on the premise that we should be able to make… There’s a better way to do this. We should be able to do this directly from plants.
Kaitlin Milliken: So I’m sure that with a product like the Impossible Burger, buy-in could be tricky for some folks. Can you talk a little bit about getting customers to adopt the Impossible Burger and get excited about the product you’re working on?
Ranjani Varadan: Yeah, so we do a lot of… Obviously we do a lot of customer studies to understand how are people responding to the product. What is the product lacking in? What else do we need to engineer into our system? Also, we do work to understand what factors are important to consumers because you know, different demographics put different emphasis on sustainability or health for example. Some people might care about nutrition and some people might not put as much weight on it. To them, sustainability is more important.
Uncompromisingly, we have to deliver the same experience. So unless your product tastes and behave the same way as meat does, it’s going to be another veggie patty. It’s not going to get adopted by people who are really eating meat. So for hardcore meat eaters to adopt it, it has to look like meat. It has to handle like meat. And it has to, you know, taste like meat.
And we’ve seen in our studies that actually there’s a certain percentage of population that’s open to trying the concept of plant-based meats. But once they try the product, the number actually increases by quite a lot, like a lot more people are now willing to adopt it. So we need to keep engaging, and trying, getting as many people to try the product as possible. It’s great that, for example, now with Burger King, with 7,000 restaurants of theirs, that gives us access to that many more people who can now try the product.
Kaitlin Milliken: I just have a question about partnerships, especially when it comes to Burger King. How does your team approach those types of partnerships? What makes a company a good fit to be working with you?
Ranjani Varadan: The companies also have to be mission-aligned. So, the company we choose to work with also has to care about the mission of our company of Impossible Foods. So that’s one factor. And we’ve had a very good relationship with Burger King. So it’s worked out very well. You know, obviously, the product is great, but also we work with them to understand how does the product need to handle in their system? What are their requirements for a product? And make sure that we can deliver that.
Kaitlin Milliken: So there’s a lot of science in this type of innovation, which is really interesting. And we’ve had books on the show before who talked about how to tell the science story in a way that’s understandable to customers and a good way to get support. How do you approach that type of storytelling around your product and the science, especially in the science side of everything?
Ranjani Varadan: We are very transparent. So, you know, everything that is going into the product is disclosed, how it’s made is disclosed, we talk about it, we are not afraid to for example, engage the customer and say that “Yes, we are using genetically modified soy in our product.” So, I think for many of these things, like GM, the perception has, like it has a negative perception because historically perhaps companies have not been transparent about these things. So the consumer perceives these as something, “Oh, you know, the company is doing this because ultimately it benefits them. I have no idea whether it’s good for me or not. Must be bad.”
But rather than take that approach, I think being very transparent and open and talk about what we are using and why we are using it, so that then the person can make their own decision. Ultimately, it’s the person’s choice, but we have to give them the information. So we are very open about it, meaning we’re happy to engage in that conversation.
Kaitlin Milliken: We always like to talk about lessons learned on the show. Are there any challenges you encountered in the R&D process? And how did you learn from them and overcome them at the end of the day?
Ranjani Varadan: At the innovation stage, you have to be willing to try everything. If you’re not open to trying things, you’re not really innovating. You’re just doing some incremental development. So innovate very broadly. And then try to simplify and understand how to scale what you’ve made. And some of the challenges perhaps are really, once we made the first perfect prototype, to understand how to scale this, and so we had to learn the lesson that “Actually you know, the way that we do it in the lab is not the most scalable way to do this.” So to go back and learn that, but that’s also when you can you have the opportunity to bring in the different types of expertise into the company people who know how to scale and then learn from them. So I think that’s roughly my take away.
Kaitlin Milliken: Great. And I have one final advice question. Do you have any tips that you would like to leave for other innovators who might be working on a product that’s got that longer timeline and future-forward vision?
Ranjani Varadan: I think it’s very important to have everybody bought into the vision. Everybody has to understand what we are trying to do and why we are trying to do that. And as a leader, you have to maintain a balance between giving people the autonomy so that their creative juices are flowing and they have the ability to test different ideas, but in a very data-driven way, you also have to understand sometimes this is a bunny trail. We have to come out of this, and you have to keep our eyes on the target. So I think a balance of that is extremely important as well.
Kaitlin Milliken: So teams working on breakthrough projects need to get both customers and colleagues within the company to buy into the vision.
All of our interviews so far were recorded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. To find out how customers’ demands shifted during the crisis, our team checked in with Hain Celestial Group. Senior Vice President of Research and Development, Jeff George shared how the company has been pivoting as of April 2020. The desire for calm and security, he says, has been a common theme in consumer behavior. Demand for the company’s eponymous Celestial Seasonings teas has also increased. You might recognize their sleepy time blend from it’s famous snoozing bear on the package.
Jeff George: Our demand for Celestial teas has been very strong. And we would hypothesize it kind of provides a unique combination of both immunity benefits, but also a feeling of serenity, a feeling of calm that that many people are seeking during this really chaotic, stressful time.
Kaitlin Milliken: Another theme: creating a sense of safety.
Jeff George: So consumers seek the need for immunity and feeling safe. So products that we produce, we previously and historically produced them in Canada, hand sanitizer. We’re seeing huge demand for that, not only in Canada, the market that we previously serve, but also in the U.S. and frankly, all around the world.
Kaitlin Milliken: To respond, the company leveraged existing resources to manufacture hand sanitizer in US facilities.
Lockdown has also created new challenges that require creativity from Hain Celestial’s R&D group. The team currently uses agile methods to concept and test new products. That often involves going back and forth with customers to gauge their opinions of new offerings. However, sampling becomes much more difficult when customers can’t try out new products on location in a store. Instead, the process has gone digital.
Jeff George: We’ve created an online community, we call it Grow Intel. And it’s around 2000 consumers who are engaged with our brands and our products. And it’s a community where we can reach out to them and get their insight, get their reactions and new product ideas. And so we can do it very rapidly, too. We can put ideas up in the community and get feedback almost instantly over 24 or 48 hours. So we’ve used that online community to test new product concepts, and we’re even now experiment with being able to send products to their home, so we actually know the addresses of the community members. So we can get their reaction to a new product idea. We can send them various prototypes to their home, have them, test them, and then provide their feedback online to us. They also talk amongst themselves and often through those conversations, they can generate new ideas and take our thinking to new level.
Kaitlin Milliken: Shortages of ingredients and packaging materials have also impacted the business. According to Jeff, the R&D group developed a rapid validation process to find suitable alternatives.
Jeff George: We have a quick process where we’ll come in and review those. Of course for safety, we would never compromise on the safety of our of our foods, but also for the taste, the texture, the appearance of the products, and try to match as closely as possible our current products. … And frankly, this is something that, you know, even if the crisis is over, and we returned to some sense of normalcy, we actually want to take many elements of what we’re doing. Now and apply it in the future because we think it’s a better way to run our business.
Kaitlin Milliken: For more information about how all sort of companies are keeping innovation alive amidst the coronavirus pandemic, you can visit our website.
You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Jodi, Ranjani, and Jeff for sharing their insights. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts. You can also get access to bonus content at innovationleader.com/podcast. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you soon.
Special thanks to Cooper Perkins for sponsoring this episode. Visit cooperperkins.com to learn more about creating innovative products for partners across industries.