With a growing demand for new solutions, “innovation” seems to be the latest fashionable term being over-used by businesses attempting to appeal to consumers. But not all products are innovative. So what does true “innovation” actually look like, and where can we find it?
I often get the impression that the term “innovation” is being bandied about like it’s going out of fashion. I’m not sure if it’s a recent phenomenon or that I’m just suddenly immersed in an environment where it’s hard to escape it. (Probably the latter).
What does innovation mean?
Not all products are innovative. What we see too often is capability-lead innovation that is put in a shiny new bag with a great big “NEW” sign emblazoned across the front. Innovation born of line capacity and manufacturing capabilities isn’t exciting. But I understand the commercial rationale and, in all honesty, some of it works.
I’ve found that my rationale for qualifying true innovation starts with the origin of the idea. True innovation is inspired by a real consumer need, and that’s why startup/challenger food & drink has never been more exciting. It’s also never been more important. Consumers are looking for solutions that are simultaneously healthy, ethical and convenient, as well as affordable. Alongside this comes a rise in specialised diets. One in three consumers in the UK are either reducing or stopping their meat intake, and 8.5 million are following a gluten-free diet. Even more restrictive diets such as keto are showing an increase in popularity.
This might sound like a nightmare for any food & drink brand trying to get its products into the hands of consumers. But it’s also a massive opportunity for genuine innovation. And it’s the small, agile entrepreneurial brands who are faster to find the solutions.
Why is that? Because they identified the need before it ever became a trend. Founders are consumers first and foremost; their eureka moment came when they were browsing the shelves for something they needed, only to find that it didn’t exist.
When you are creating something born of a true need, that’s when you are passionate about it, and can really ‘own it’. It can’t be compared to an idea that’s been signed off based on a four-page business case, which is never truly yours.
Why big businesses can’t compete
The truth is: they can, and many are.
That’s why levelling the playing field is so important. Truly new innovative ideas are not born in big businesses, for the same reasons I mentioned above. Even if they were, they may not even see the light of day. A fantastic idea is just that, and it takes someone with complete autonomy, copious amounts of drive, and a contagious passion to take it to market. That person isn’t often found within larger businesses, as they find the environment stifling. Even if they are, they need to push that innovation through layers of sign-off, past a commercial strategy that rewards the status quo, and through constantly changing teams. And if it isn’t profitable or safe enough, it’s got no chance.
When innovation does come from the larger, multi-national organisations, it’s usually because:
- They have created their own “innovation” teams, dedicated to spotting and copy market trends.
- They have taken a stake in a smaller brand.
- They have launched their own incubation schemes.
So whilst the larger players in the food & drink industry can’t/won’t enter the market with something truly game-changing, what seems to happen (often with some success) is the imitation of true innovation when it has shown promise. We can see new ‘small brands’ built by big businesses appearing on every shelf almost overnight. Well-backed, inauthentic, and ungenuine, they merely attempt to mirror their small brand counterparts. Fortunately, increasingly savvy consumers often see through this façade.
What does the future hold?
Startup food & drink is exciting and it’s truly on the agenda now. But a lot must be true in order for a challenger brand to turn potential into a scalable proven proposition. It can’t just be about differentiation and it simply must deliver on the retailer’s commercial strategy. (After all, this isn’t just for fun.)
It seems that the future of food & drink will be shaped by both small and larger brands alike, with both ends of the market having an influential role to play. I believe that there is a harmonious state in which both ends of the market can thrive. If I’m proven correct, then all consumers are in for a treat.
So, what is innovation? In my view, it’s delivering true value for the consumer, not the business.