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Finding Inspiration for Flavor Innovation


Flavor innovation took quite a bit of a downturn in 2020 and 2021, down 4.5% year-on-year, Dave Franz, vice president, sales and marketing for FlavorSum, told attendees of the 104th Annual NAFFS Convention. These numbers, he said, are down 15% from the pre-pandemic numbers of 2019.

Franz said this is due in part to COVID-19, the resulting supply chain instability and the challenges for sourcing raw materials. Naturally, he said, retailers have become risk-averse. “Taking on new products that might not move as fast as the core sellers can be a costly mistake at a time when margins are very tight,” he said.

Franz said he and his team rely upon Mintel’s Global New Products Database to monitor new product activity. He said there are a few categories currently showing growth, including; sauces and seasoning, bakery (which he noted was up 15.4%), snack bars, alcoholic beverages (up 26.4%), dairy, hot beverages, desserts and nutrition. The biggest recent decline happened in confectionery and sports drinks, which were each down 19%, indicating a noticeable consumer push-back on sugar.

Franz said there’s a huge boon to new-product launches in the on-premises experience sought at home. “But these new products require resources to get to market,” he said. There’s a move toward launching an existing product but in a new flavor. Franz said this is actually still considered a “relaunch” and he’s seen success when existing, familiar flavors are paired with something new.

Consumer interest in plant-based alternative products is very high, he said. One example of this is a vegan ice cream. Drastically changing the base of a popular product requires some other form of familiarity to see success in the market, he said. “For example, favorite ice cream flavors like chocolate, vanilla, butter pecan and pistachio do best in the new non-dairy, plant-based bases.”

Franz said cross-over flavors such as lemonade or cotton candy have been entering the existing baked goods market. “Ube is a flavor to watch,” Franz said. He showed the audience a purple cookie, flavored with a purple yam which he said is a great example of taste innovation in baked goods. Franz said his team has to determine whether something they see in the research is a trend or a “one-off”. He said they do “social listening” on all channels, such as Google search engines, Pinterest, recipes posted and menus appearing in foodservice to determine what might be here to stay. He said Ube is actually being mentioned less in the social media, but growing in BBQ foods, Chinese foods and vegan products on foodservice menus, so it’s valuable to look at the whole picture.

Market sweeps, he said, help his teams to inspire new flavor creations. The research and development teams go to specialty stores and groceries to taste new products. This offers a glimpse into “types of concepts consumers are seeing and use that expertise to assess how well the product taste profile delivers on the concept,” he said.

Primary consumer insights discussed by Franz included the need for customers for comfort and mood enhancement. He said that companies can reduce risk by making the flavors more affordable, linked to familiar tastes and easy-to-try. Consumers, he said, have indicated a desire for health benefits and mood elevation and are open to a familiar product being “plussed up” for that digestive health, including lactose-free and the entire non-dairy trend.

There are some risky new flavors on the horizon but money to launch is tight, he said. Affordability is a major factor for consumers to try something new, something they may not enjoy. Inflation is affecting consumer confidence and their willingness to try new things. 46% of consumers polled think that new equals expensive, he noted.

• Franz said research he’s seen recommends a smaller trial package offering so that the financial investment is lower. It allows the consumer to “come into flavor and different brands in smaller volume.”

Knowing all of this, Franz wondered whether 2022 will be the “Year of the Familiar”, pointing to research that shows few adults expect to try new things this year. This is a significant change from pre-pandemic days when new product exploration was in full swing, he said.

“There’s significant opportunity there to pull consumers into the trial if there is something new paired with something familiar and therefore, safe,” he said, citing the flavor combination uzu-raspberry that someone may risk since they know at least they like raspberry.

Products similar to favorites have a better chance of a successful launch in the current climate, Franz said. “Offer a bridge to the familiar.”

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