Say cheese! At Bel Brands, one of the world leaders in branded cheeses, innovation isn't always all smiles; as Pauline Decroos, Senior Consumer Insights Manager at Bel Brands USA, told Trend Hunter, innovating in the category requires a nimble mindset and the willingness to take risks.
TH: Tell us about yourself and your role at Bel Brands.
PD: I’m in charge of market research for all of Bel’s brands here in the US. So Babybel, Laughing Cow, and Boursin, but also what we call local brands (because they are not global, they’re purely American brands) like Kaukauna, Merkt’s, and Price’s spreadable cheddar. I do everything from qualitative to quantitative, both consumer and shopper insights. Part of it is innovation, because we have high ambitions for our brands, so we really work on innovation for all of them.
How do you and your team generate great ideas? Do you have certain rituals to make creativity happen?
At Bell Brands, the innovation process is typically led by the global team, and we gather all the countries to go through the process. We start from the insights, and then we build the concepts with the benefit that we add, and then we move from there. In terms of source of inspiration, it’s mostly observations, interviews, social listening, reading — so everyone has a list of tasks to do before the brainstorm.
What are some barriers to innovation?
I think the real barrier in our company is that we want the new product to be perfect. So we test and retest and retest to make sure we have the perfect product or innovation or initiative. But in the end, time flies. So it's not that we aren't innovative, it's just that it takes time.
On a similar note, we also have technical barriers sometimes. We have high expectations, and we want breakthrough innovations in terms of products. That means technology or techniques or industrial stakes, and that takes a lot of investment, which also prevents us from being fast.
How do you get around those barriers?
We’re trying to create processes in order to accelerate innovation and overcome those barriers. We recognize that time to market is as important as the innovation itself, so we’re make sure to be happy and excited with something that might not be absolutely perfect but still good enough to be launched.
How do you identify trends? What resources do you and your team use to spot trends and insights?
We have multiple sources. We have studies from our vendors, newspapers, readings — but it’s really open. So we ask everybody to go and search. The last one, for instance, we had each person in the group conduct a very specific task: interview X amount of people with such and such a profile or go and observe food trucks. So we try to vary the sources as much as possible.
Do you have rituals for resetting to be creative?
Personally, I try to remove all my preconceived ideas. When you’re used to something, it’s easy to say, "I know why that happens," but really you might not. So it’s about going back to the key, basic questions and removing the preconceived ideas. It’s a mindset I’m trying to get when I start on a new project.
I also look outside of my direct existing competitive environment. You often find ideas when you look in totally different market or country or segment. You realize that this could be applied to my own project, even though it’s something different.
Has there ever been an instance where another industry has influenced an innovation at your company?
We had one idea a couple of years ago where we wanted to go for very very thin slices of cheese, similar to carpaccio in the meat industry. So that was something where we took inspiration from another category. We’ve also looked at cereal, granola bars — all the portable snacks — and we’ve tried to identify how it can be applied to cheese.
What are some examples of things you can do to create a culture of innovation?
First you have to talk about innovation — a lot. For instance, what I do here as a consumer insights professional is organize a lunch and learn where I present the team trends and new products. Every month we have a new theme that shows how innovation is important and what’s happening in the marketplace. Sometimes I’ll ask them before the meeting to share something that they thought was innovative, to really put them in that mindset.
Then, as an organization, we’ve just set higher goals in terms of the percentage of sales that are driven by new products versus old products. Ultimately, this KPI could be part of everyone’s objective for their bonus so that suddenly everybody becomes very interested in innovation [laughs].
Describe the future…
The cheese industry will be more into snacking. Like today, we’ll still have grated cheese, hard cheese — that’ll still exist. But I think all the individual, on-the-go, single-serve, portable snacks will be much more important than they are now and take up a much bigger space. Maybe even more than grated cheese is today.
Cheese has a big opportunity to grow. It’s healthy, it’s protein-packed, it’s natural, it’s delicious, simple, and fresh. So many health benefits, but also emotional benefits. So I’m sure the category will change a lot.
I think also the way it’s sold will change. Today it’s mostly in the grocery store, but I think we’ll see it in convenience stores and even vending machines.
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