Barriers and opportunities for innovation in FMCG

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 30th September 2015


Allen Roberts is a guest contributor to Australian Food News and writes another of his regular articles here.

Peter Drucker stated 50 years ago that innovation is the only really sustainable competitive advantage, and the passage of events have proved him correct.


Commercial survival is requires that you are able to continually innovate, or you rapidly find yourself left behind, simply because everybody else is.


Knowing this does not however, make the challenge any less daunting, especially in an environment like FMCG where the retail gorillas stamp on variation as a source of transaction costs, and are actively seeking to reduce SKU numbers by pushing housebrands.


Let’s define what we mean by innovation for the purposes of this post.


It does not include business model and process innovation. Both are terrific ways towards commercial sustainability, are paths every business must follow, but have little to do with innovation from the customer perspective, at least in the short to medium term.


By contrast, product innovation is concerned with new stuff that adds value to consumers.


Pretty simple definition, that precludes line extensions, which are just a fact of life, product changes, which are again a fact of life.  We are seeking  to talk about the things that really make a difference, and how and why that happens.


Following are some thoughts on the nature of the strategic environment we find ourselves competing.


Innovation Paradox: Big businesses get big by being able to reproduce things without variation, their processes ensure consistency, and reject the outliers. This goes as much for people as it does products, so generally large businesses have more difficulty seeing and acting on something new than small ones. There are obvious exceptions, and large businesses everywhere are seeking ways to overcome the innovative inconvenience of their scale, with greatly differing levels of success. Nevertheless, the generality holds, but the small business end of the  FMCG supply chain has been decimated, perhaps almost eradicated  by the scale of the supermarkets and the power of their business model. Where is the innovation going to come from I  wonder.


Risk: The risk profile of every business is different, but as a generality small businesses have a greater capacity to take risky decisions, but a less capacity to absorb them when they  go pear-shaped. Large businesses survive on consistency as noted, and success for individuals in a large business is usually counted by their successes, failures are frowned upon, so the tendency to take risks is reduced, hence, their inability to innovate. Again there are notable exceptions, but they always occur when there is a leader who mandates and lives risk tolerance.


Wide view: Any organisation, no matter how big, only has a small proportion of the people thinking about the categories they compete in, so why do you think you will come up with the great ideas? Those using what I have always called “Environmental Research” always do better. This has nothing to do with hugging trees, and everything to do with understanding the context in which the behaviour of your consumers happens. When you understand the context, and see shifts, the opportunities suddenly become more easily identified.


Habit: Consumers are driven by their own habits, and once formed, it takes a lot of effort to break them. Habits work because they make our lives easier, and we are loathe to risk what we know works, for that for which there may be a question.


Boundaries: Innovation efforts need boundaries, or they tend to wander off into irrelevancy. I have found it far better to provide those boundaries in the pre-workshop, if that is what you are doing, material. It is necessary to encourage people to as the cliché goes, “think outside the box” but it is counter productive to have people thinking outside the municipality. Far better to ground the process in a context that is familiar, where there is market and customer knowledge available to feed the process. Without such grounding you tend to get uncertainty and irrelevancy, and ideas and conversation that skates across the surface rather than digging deep to where the problems and opportunities that provide the fodder of successful  innovation are buried. I love the metaphor of Classical music and Jazz in the context of innovation, the score provides the boundaries. To be a good classical music player, you need to be a master of your instrument, and be able to reproduce note perfectly what the composer has written, the allowable variation is very small, the emphasis is on technique. Jazz by contrast requires that you are a master of the instrument, as well as the music to the extent that you can take what a composer has written and innovate around the base rhythm and melody, so you need to be not just a master technician, but a master of the music. Great innovation in a commercial environment   has exactly the same characteristics.


Think different: The great 1997 Apple advertisement  said it all, but how many corporate entities will tolerate the crazy ones? Very few. If you are to truly be an innovator, somehow you have to accommodate some crazy ones. Generally they  are tough going, irreverent, unconcerned with status and the status quo, constantly irritating the nice smooth flow of processes that deliver the consistency that corporates thrive on.


Problem definition: Innovation occurs when a problem is solved. Often it is an old problem solved in a new way, sometimes it is a problem unrecognised until the solution comes along, the classic example being the post-it-note. A huge part of the challenge of innovation is the identification of the problem. Rarely does a problem emerge with a fully-fledged solution, but as Einstein, in my  view one of the greatest marketing thinkers who never receives any credit at all once said, “if I had an hour to solve a live changing problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes defining the problem, the rest is just maths.”


Margin maintenance: This is tangled up with risk profile, but is separate. Over the years I have done many proposals for new products killed at  the gate by the margin problem. “If we launch this, it will erode our margins” often true, but the standard response I give is “better us than someone else”, but it is often a futile response when the ultimate decision maker is compensated by short term considerations. After all, Kodak managed to survive for 40 years after they invented the digital camera in1975, several generations of CEO had passed through in that time, all taking their packet, it was just  the last in the line who had a problem.


Value not just price: Consumers look for “value”, but way too often that is translated by suppliers and the retailer into “price”. Price is just one way of reflecting value, but it is the most obvious, and easiest to articulate.


Barriers: Every industry has its own set of barriers to innovation in addition to the more general ones above. In the case of the Australian packaged goods industry, they are several, all associated with the concentration of power in the retail trade: 


Margin squeeze

Speed of house brand copying the successful products

Timing of distribution and advertising

On shelf management of facings, cut in, position, promotional programs  and stock weight

13 week “live or die” time

On shelf upfront costs

Category management if you are not the category captain, and few small businesses are,  you are at a significant disadvantage

Risk averse retailers

Habit. Everyone is used to doing business in a certain way, so that is the way it is done.


Opportunities for suppliers: Similarly to barriers, every industry has its own unique set of opportunities that when seen are open for businesses to chase.


Social media: FMCG suppliers have not yet solved the problems of how to best use social media to market their process in supermarkets.


Mobility: Engagement with the web and its tools is now mobile, a majority of net interactions are mobile, and most people have their smart phones with them all  the time. Using this capability and the geo-location capability to foster a direct relationship between the brand owner and the consumer with the supermarket playing the distributor role is a real opportunity currently under-recognised and utilised.


Food service and ingredient: These are fragmented markets, where innovation, service and brand can still play a real role, and getting a return on your investment is still up to the quality of your business, not the whim of a buyer in a gorilla suit. Depending on whose numbers you use, sales outside the major chains of ingredient and to food service outlets from fine dining to fast food, is north of 60 $billion.


Digital coupons: Retailers in Australia have ensured that the redeemable coupon, so prevalent in the US does not get a start here, too much transaction cost, but a digital coupon? Why not? There have been several tries of various types, Groupon being the most obvious, but smartphones make it so much easier to collect coupons and redeem them  in some way, not necessarily even associated with the retailer.


Range optimisation: Category management as it has evolved has always been data intensive, and from a retailers perspective, the objective has been margin optimisation. The next step I suspect will be range optimisation which is really just margin optimisation with a far greater understanding of consumer behaviour thrown into the mix. We have all operated with the view that our various research tools and their data gave us enough to work with, and they did,  but suddenly there is the “big data” behaviour mining opportunity offered by  social media and geo location, in addition to the fragmentation of times we shop, and how we place and receive orders. Range optimisation to accommodate all these changes just became in my humble view, the FMCG marketing challenge of the decade.


Innovation from the waste. Until very recently, produce that was outside the specs for appearance was consigned to the waste bin, juicing, and other marginal uses, it was not deemed good enough by retailers to sell, not because it was nutritionally or organolepticly deficient, but because it looked crook. Along came the idea of highlighting the products visual imperfections,  “Imperfect pick” is the term Harris Farm have used, Canadian chain Loblaws has successfully  rolled out “ugly fruit”  in Canada, and both Woolies and Coles appear to be tinkering with the idea currently. There are a myriad of opportunities to utilise undervalued product to build a category, for example, shin bones are the foundation of Osso Bucco, many of us will sample great Osso Bucco at an Italian restaurant, but never cook it at home, when it is an easy, tasty  meal with a very low meat cost. Pretty simple marketing I would have thought.


Innovation is tough, but it is also fun and makes the future. Those who just wait for the future to happen will be overwhelmed by it, those who take a role in shaping it will at least have the chance to do well.


Allen Roberts is a guest contributor to Australian Food News and writes another of his regular articles here. He is the Director of Strategy Audit and has worked in the food sector for more than 35 years. To read his full biography click HERE.