Last January I wrote about idea generation and whether this was a skill that could be learned (BTW the answer you are looking here is YES).
I then thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to put together all the ways I know about coming up with ideas”. “Why not share it with everyone!” was my next thought. “Why not ask friends and colleagues to contribute” was the one that followed.
At that point I stopped thinking and got to work and with the help of good friends I curated this edition of 20 tips plus some resources.
Scaling up a recipe can create quality defects that are not visible on bench or pilot plant.
The cookies were beautiful and everyone was so excited about them. They ticked all the boxes. Plenty of chocolate pieces, lovely melt in the mouth texture, a balanced aroma of chocolate mixed in with vanilla and baked biscuit notes and a gorgeous colour that made them look fresh and inviting. They were not the ones in the photograph, but looked just as homemade. The only snag was that they had only been made on the bench and here was the team talking about what the launch event would be like !
If only the forming equipment in the factory were as gentle as the hands of the product developer… Machines want to run fast, squash and squeeze and push this lovely soft dough and all the inclusions in it. By the way, machines hate inclusions. In fact they can’t stand them. You can see where this is going now, can’t you ? The minute we started testing the recipe on the full scale production line, at the correct batch size and at speeds that gave optimum performance for the equipment and delivered a throughput that made the product financially viable, a big part of the loveliness off the product started to disappeared. The shape and homemade appearance was altered, the chocolate pieces were smashed and brown streaks of smeared chocolate were making the golden colour of the cookie turn a dirty shade of brown. The only consolation was that it still tasted great.
Can we fix this? Yes we can! to paraphrase Bob the builder, but it needs work and the combined efforts of the manufacturing team, the process developer and the product developer. There are things that can be done with the mixing and forming equipment, ways to make the inclusions less susceptible to damage and manufacturing practices that can be put in place to control production better. The key point for a product developer is to make sure they scale up their recipe as soon as possible and to plan some trouble shooting time in the project’s time plan. It also pays to speak with their manufacturing colleagues and invite them to share their knowledge and experience early on in a project. One thing I’ve learned is that when faced with a challenge, the best course of action is to reach out to colleagues and get their input and help. A collaborative solution is always better than one you come up with on your own… unless your surname is Einstein !
Sometimes unique ingredients can give a dish its signature and make the difference between a good dish and a great one.
This film holds a very special place in my heart, as I recognise a lot of the food and the family idiosyncrasies, even some of the accents, of my father’s family in it. My paternal grandparents were Greeks of Istanbul, fortunate enough to choose the time of their arrival to Athens. They brought with them all the traditions and recipes depicted in the film. A generous table with an abundance of dishes prepared with love, imagination and skill was part of the cuisine and the culture. It would be unthinkable to welcome guests without a large selection of edible wonders.
Spice is mentioned a lot in the film. There is a lovely scene (see video) where the grandad teaches his grandson the shape of our universe using different spices. Spice has the ability to transform a dish and often makes the difference between a good plate of food and an extraordinary one. It can add depth and complexity in the aroma and the flavour and leave consumers wondering what the magic taste is. The source and combination of spices and flavour extracts in a dish are often closely guarded secrets, whether it is a relative’s recipe, a chef’s or a big brand’s. The supply chain director used to always tease me about all the “unique” flavours that my team would introduce into the factories. They complicated production. I could see his point, but more often that not this unique flavour was what gave a product its signature taste. As a developer you need to keep a fine balance between trying to keep the recipes you develop simple keeping new ingredients to a minimum and creating a signature taste and aroma.
How many brainstorming techniques are there ? Probably as many as grains of sand on a beach
Last week’s post on whether creativity is a skill that can be developed, got me thinking about the numerous ways and techniques that we use to come up with ideas. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this must be a list with no end, hence the sand and beach parallel (nothing to do with the fact that because of the lockdown, I can only dream of going to the beach…).
So WHAT IF* (favourite two words ever!) I could compile a list of as many ways, techniques, environments, methods, inspirations of coming up with ideas, as I can.
So this is not one of my usual post. This is the start of a challenge to create a very long list, that will be updated regularly. I’ll reach out to friends and I’ll ask them for their best tips: – What techniques do they use – Do they have any special places where ideas come flooding in – Have they come across and idea gurus and their methods – Are there any people that help them come up with ideas – Do they have any best practices to help other people come up with ideas – What conditions encourage idea generation I’ll of course be very happy to credit your contribution on the list.
*What If is also the name of a creative agency (there may be others) that I worked with many years ago. They even ran a training session for us at the time that was excellent. Worth getting if you can. Amazon had some used copies available. Just to be clear re copyright, I will not be copying the book, rather capturing methods I have tried and tested over the years, some of which were sparked off by the training I had attended.
You can become more creative if you turn idea generation into a habit.
I am reading Seth Godin’s book The Practice at the moment. One of his fundamental starting points is that creativity is a skill and not a talent and that it can be learned. If it is indeed a skill and you can learn it, then as with all skills once you have been shown how, all you have to do is practice and practice some more. I have spent thirty plus years creating new products. I always maintained that I was very lucky to have worked with a group of naturally creative people. People with the talent of creativity. But now, looking back at the times when we were at our most creative, I can see a pattern emerging. We had created certain habits and rituals that got us practising generating ideas on a regular basis. Every Monday morning for example, we would all have our first coffee of the day together and we would talk about new things we had seen, done, tasted, experienced over the weekend. Sometimes we would have a theme, sometimes not, but we would always end up the session with some new ideas.
Another habit we had was to add 30 min at the end of every meeting with a supplier, where they would present new ingredients to us, to brainstorm ideas sparked off by the presentation. Or, once a month we would pick a trend or a topic and have an hour’s brainstorming or half a day’s hands on prototyping. I think you’ve got the gist. Those sessions were not only allowing us to practice and perfect the skill of being creative, but they were also great fun and were helping us recharge our batteries. If I were to distil all this into “How to create the habit of being creative” I would say:
Build regular creative time into your diary
It can be a certain day and time every week, or an agenda item in a team meeting or larger events x number of times
Be generous and “spread the love” practice creating with others
Keep it fresh
Try different creative techniques, different venues and different topics
Bring it back to your innovation priorities
Fun as it may be, coming up with lots of ideas about new yoghurts, it won’t do your biscuit business much good. Then again I did launch a Yoplait / McVitie’s yoghurt desert pot once…
How to create the habit of being creative
I believe Seth Godin has a valid point. Creativity can be approached as a skill to be developed and you can get better at it if you practice. Of course you need to practice while being in the right frame of mind, but this is a topic for another blog.
Optimising recipe and process so that we can deliver on the product’s promise.
Before all you chocoholics, and I include myself in this, rush to answer “NO”, let me tell you a story. There once was a young product developer that was given a new project, to develop an indulgent chocolate bakery product. It had to have all the cues of a premium confectionary product and with the lightness and crispness of a biscuit. This was the brief that led to the launch, many years ago, of probably the first confectionery bar targeting younger women from a big biscuit player in the UK market. Luckily there was a business in the group at the time, that already made a wafer product that was intensely chocolatey, beautifully crisp in texture and yet melt in the mouth because of a stunning confectionary cream between the delicate wafer layers. This luxurious eat was completed with the bar being covered in chocolate. It sounds too good to be true, ready made innovations, and it was ! The bar was the wrong size, the chocolate and the cream were too bitter and even though we had all the right elements, when put together, the product did not look premium enough for our UK consumer, nor did the taste work for their palate.
There was a lot to be designed and redesigned, but eventually after much recipe work, many trials and consumer tests we were almost there. The taste was great, the size was right, two delicate looking fingers in a golden flow wrap. We just could not get it to look premium enough. Too much chocolate was being blown off the top of the bar as the bar was going through the chocolate enrober, thus exposing the wafer on the surface, even creating holes in the chocolate where the wafer was showing through. The easy solution would have been to blow less chocolate off. Financially the product could carry a bit more chocolate (This was lucky. Remind me one day to tell you the story of HobNobs as it’s been told to me by its creator), and after all who does not like more chocolate! Problem solved, right ? WRONG !
The extra chocolate totally imbalanced the eat. It detracted from the delicate nature of the wafer and the special melting profile of the cream. The product was no longer delivering on its promise of luxury and light. The next days and weeks we worked tirelessly on the manufacturing equipment and the flow properties of the chocolate and in the end we managed to get the right amount of chocolate, no more – no less, to sit on the top surface of the bar. RIVA was launched and in its first few years it brought in new consumers, high revenue and profit and grew the chocolate biscuit bar category. A happy ending to the story and very proud young product developer… More it not always the answer, even if this is chocolate. What is always the answer, is designing a product that delivers on its promise and is true to a brand’s essence.
A product developer’s role is to create food with great ingredients, imaginatively prepared and beautifully presented. Their food can be transformative.
Babette’s Feast is a 1987 Danish film (Big gasp! Yes it is in Danish with English subtitles), with a lot of gray (not “Fifty shades of Grey”, this is gray in colour, gray sky, gray clothes, gray hair…you get the gist). How am I doing ? Am I selling it to you so far ? The film has absolutely mouthwatering scenes of food preparation, presentation and consumption and won an Oscar for best foreign language film and a BAFTA amongst other. How am I doing now? Babette, a very capable chef (we do not know this at the start of the film) turns up in a remote village in Denmark. The villagers are all of a certain age and lead a poor and restrictive life, where food is seen only as fuel. Babette then comes into money and choses to create a luxurious feast for the villagers. She brings in ingredients they have never seen before and wines fit for a king. She works tirelessly to create the most incredible dishes, she was after all the head chef at the renown Cafe Anglais in Paris before she moved to the village. She lays the table with the whitest of white tablecloths, the finest crockery and cutlery and crystal glasses.
The scene is now set for magic to happen. How else would you explain the transformation of this gathering of austere, quiet, set in their ways people to a smiling, talkative (well a bit more than before) and evidently happy group. And this is what fabulous food, created with great ingredients, prepared and cooked with imagination, presented with care and enjoyed without rushing can do. It can transform a gathering and unlock conversations.
Our mission as product developers is to allow magic to take place. Start with great ingredients, bring your passion and your imagination into the recipes and package your creation in a way that will do it justice. Will we achieve it every single time ? Maybe not, but we are surely going to give it our best shot. A very good friend of mine and one I consider to be a product development guru, would create recipe after recipe until he was satisfied he was ready to show you his product.
Developing food for the festive periods is one of the activities product developers love.
No matter where you go in the world you will find people celebrating special days. Whether the celebrations are for religious events or for the start of a new year, a birthday or an achievement, they each have their own traditions. Some traditions are universal, like Santa Claus at Christmas, or regional like mulled wine in the north of Europe or event specific to a family. One thing though remains a constant and this is that food accompanies every single one of them and takes centre stage.
Festive celebrations can be a tremendous inspiration for a product developer. Whether they are recreating traditional recipes, introducing new twists, or designing lovely festive packaging, developers can let their imagination go wild. I remember creating a new indulgent chocolate biscuit that was going to be the centre piece in a new biscuit selection. It was being created especially, for the new millennium. It had to really stand out in both flavour and texture. A great flavour that would go perfectly with a glass of champagne at the stroke of midnight, but also with a cup of coffee or tea in the following days . Creating a signature flavour is no mean feat. How do you get to something that is new, positive, sparkly, fragrant. Oh and did I mention that as it is always the case with food it had to also be delicious ? Both recognisable and surprising at the same time. I was in almost daily conversation with the flavour house that was working on the project with me. We must have tried more than a hundred combinations, some fruity, some herbal, some floral. We even entered the world of perfumes, I distinctly remember presenting this “wonderful new aroma called neroli” to my marketing colleague.
Big events and festive periods are great times for inspiration and creativity. Will you go for a traditional mince pie or will you create a mincemeat filled donut. How will you infuse these flavours into a loose leaf tea? The possibilities are endless, although I would probably draw the line putting a dollop of mincemeat on spaghetti (see Elf the movie).
Then again What If (the two most powerful words) we made plain homemade pasta and filled it with some mincemeat, boil and then drizzle with cinnamon syrup, grate some lemon and sprinkle some roasted chopped nuts on top… Who says that pasta has to be savoury!
The world of product development will never be boring so long as there are festivals and celebrations, each with their own traditions and foods.
With science telling us that a healthy gut is key to both physical and mental health, good gut food is a trend that is here to stay.
Last week I attended the excellent annual Food and Beverage Trends Summit organised by the food people https://thefoodpeople.co.uk/trends-event-2020 . One of the trends that stood out for me was gut health. What started a few years ago as a niche market with probiotic dairy drinks, is now firmly established as an area of opportunity as well as an area of responsible/ethical food manufacture, especially when it comes to creating and marketing healthier foods.
Two years ago I remember opening a panel discussion on food trends at the NPD food&drink conference in London, with the lesser known fact that we all carried about 2kg of microbes in our gut, that held the key to a lot of our wellbeing. Two years on, science is telling us that a diverse and healthy micro biome can protect us from some of the most common lifestyle diseases and ….wait for it….can even help improve our mood!
A number of the speakers last week talked about good gut food, and in particular registered nutritionist Beth Edwards. It is worth watching her session https://youtu.be/Ln6uDO9i49g There are two ways we can look after these lovely microbes in our gut. One way is by adding some more through probiotic drinks, live yoghurts and other raw fermented food like kimchi. The other way is by feeding them food they love, which is lots of different whole grains, fruit and veg.
We are seeing more and more products that claim they can contribute to a healthy gut. The dairy and alternative dairy sector is already booming with live cultures and new products but now the breakfast cereal sector is following suit with bacteria friendly food. Even big players like Kellogg’s are following the trend. This year’s winner of the Grocer’s Chefs and restauranteurs are also starting to promote such food through their menu and through their books. Some doctors and nutritionists are also trying to reach the general population to explain the benefits of a healthy gut and how the food we eat can support this. Search for Gut under diets and healthy eating on Amazon books and you get 75 pages.
I could go on and on, but I think you’ve got the gist. This is a trend that as product developers we need to incorporate into our developments and help it to move from trend to mainstream.
The packaging format can affect a product’s shelf life
Some events get lodged into your brain and stay with you forever. They become your “I learnt the hard way kid…” (imagine a tough Hollywood actor saying this line) or “In my days, we always used to …” (for this line, imagine your granddad or grandma saying it) stories. This story is one of these events and learnings that even though it happened about 30 years ago it stayed with me. And it was not even my project at the time, but a very talented colleague’s of mine.
Imagine you have this great biscuit which has been around for years and everybody loves it. It is penny stacked in a roll wrap, in other words one biscuit is on top of another and they are tightly wrapped in plastic film. Great if you are at home, you can take one out and eat it and put the rest in whatever container you use as the biscuit barrel (If you are reading this and don’t live in Britain, the biscuit barrel is not a barrel at all. It is just a small container that dreams of being a barrel !). But what if you are out and about?
The idea was groundbreaking in the UK biscuit and snacks market at the time. It sound obvious now, “Let’s make the biscuits smaller and put some of them in a little bag.” but it did create a brand new category at the time. Anyway I digress, this is about the techie dimension of the project not the marketing one. Same recipe, same process, same packaging material, so same shelf life. Right?… WRONG! The shelf life of the new product was significantly reduced, main reason being … you’ve guest it, there was MORE AIR in the pack! Of course there are things a food technologist can do to compensate for all this air bathing the product from all sides, and this is what we did. But I learnt that air, with all its ability to creep into the pack through the tiniest of holes, with its lovely oxygen and moisture, is a force to be reckoned with. The first thing I will always do is start a shelf life test in the right pack format, as soon as it is possible.