Fran Katz

Whether a new product is born from consumer needs or from scientific advance has been debated endlessly. But it isn’t one or the other, and the chicken/egg question is not cogent.

Marketing Pull vs Technology Push

Most new products are developed to fit specific consumer needs, but the availability of cutting-edge science helps solve the problems of filling needs with greater specificity. In successful groups, teams form around some key champions, either of technologies or of product concepts. In a few cases, teams form around champions of both at once, and good things happen.

Certain new technologies have triggered new products in greater numbers than would have been expected. This is a particular plus for those companies that have invested in research that discovers some of the basic technologies that describe how things work. To keep basic research from being an expensive white elephant, expanding the use of technology beyond the problem that it was supposed to fix makes basic research cost effective, a plus to the board of directors, and gold to the investors. Sometimes the research base provides the key to new products; sometimes a compelling consumer need is recognized and defined, and becomes a new product. Using new technology to enhance the quality of new product characteristics can become a push-pull exercise in which products are developed and improved in stages, as recognition of consumer needs dovetails with available technology.

Products and Technologies Need Market Input
Researchers studying basic sciences are often criticized for not taking market needs into account. But these statements need interpretation as well—market need is a general concern of basic scientists in companies, and, if we believe the first statement that occurs in most technical paper abstracts, academic researchers are not strangers to the concept of using scientific knowledge.

The product concept more usually evolves from the goals, priorities, and guidelines drafted for completion by marketing departments. If the technology fits into an application that isn’t on the list of required products for introduction by marketing, or if the application would require major changes in production lines, that new application may not see the light of day. However, when researchers understand the areas of interest of a company, and have knowledge of the appropriate level of risk for the firm, better use of basic information is more likely.

Often, the technology that differentiates products is not transparent to the consumer. The product either tastes better, has better shelf life, or is superior in ways that the consumer already expects.

Market needs have been well-defined by sensory sciences, in which terms are defined, products are rated, and preferences identified. But consumers want a lot of things from a food product that aren’t measurable, and aren’t usually mentioned at all. To get a product on a shelf and keep it there, the consumer must be satisfied and the marketer must be able to justify the product in economic terms and without undue risk. The food seller must be satisfied, too—the package must be appropriate and shelf conditions suitable. It is in this area that technical capability makes a big difference in answering the needs of the market to pull products into the sell zone.

Key consumer wants currently include fresh foods; healthier foods; foods with distinct and interesting flavor and textural characteristics; convenience; and appropriate pricing. Safety has become a given. So the consumer wants must include several extra terms: safe foods that are fresher; fresh foods that are convenient to use; healthier foods that are convenient and interesting; and a variety of combinations of new consumer requirements that include all of the previous requirements. The level to which these consumer needs become integrated into a product is the key to success. Is the new product fresher, or as fresh-tasting as just peeled? Is “healthier” defined as having more of a key element than all competitive products or some competitive products? It is the ability to fulfill the consumer’s needs better than anyone else that uses technology push to provide the power behind marketing pull?

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Emerging Technologies
Some specific emerging technologies developed over the past decade have fueled a portfolio of products. As these technologies become more understood, the products they produce can become more complex. Here are some examples:
• Water technology fills marketing needs. A major advance over the past several years is the use of water activity, polymer chemistry, and phase-transition science and its derivatives. While there are several schools of thought about which approach is “right,” the study of water and its role in foods has given rise to an increased number of new products that have made inroads on standard products.

The understanding of water as a plasticizer and phase determinant has been invaluable in developing new low-fat cookies and crackers (e.g., Snack-Well’s), coatings (Shake ‘n Bake), and shelf-stable, semimoist pet foods.

The key to using this property for profit is the ability to describe, in descriptive and specific terms, the need that the marketing group has identified and determine whether some aspect of water activity technology can provide the characteristic that’s required.

Some aspect of water-phase technology has provided fat reduction in the form of salad dressing to replace mayonnaise and similar products, when combined with understanding of acid content in the water phase. New work in fibers has also added to the new ways of using phase transition to provide products with fat content at a specified level, good flavor, and normal textures.

The work on water phases began several decades ago, with products like Miracle Whip, and was used to develop dry coatings and biscuits and crackers. At the same time, flavor bits were appearing in cereals and shelf-stable products, and longer-life refrigerated products began to emerge. Understanding the correlation between molecular weight of small-chain carbohydrates and water activity reduction, as well as other considerations such as viscosity and sweetness, made several new ingredients very useful.

Is it marketing pull or technology push that has continued to convert this technology to new products? Two major industrial researchers, Louise Slade and Harry Levin, this year’s winners of the Institute of Food Technologists’ Industrial Scientist Award, have been very involved with both developing the technology and working with products. They work with production and marketing people and are able to translate the needs suggested by marketing into specific technologies. They have continued to develop their technologies and push the envelope farther. The combination of a winning product that consumers need and new technologies that provide a strong technical base for differentiation is key.

• Understanding the relationship between molecular weights and other key attributes of foods has provided new varieties of colloids, clear saccharide solutions, and better flavor encapsulation. Methods of evaluating the molecular weight distributions of ingredients and relating the molecular weight averages to characteristics of the product have improved the use of ingredients in foods to meet marketing needs. Better flavor encapsulation, bulking with carbohydrates, gelling according to temperature—characteristics that fit into marketing needs for good flavor and texture—have broadened the choices for producing new food products. While the general correlation of molecular weight with viscosity has been roughly understood, the specific correlations have become possible as molecular weights have become easier to measure and control. At the same time, enzyme technology has permitted the production of carbohydrates with much more specific molecular weight distributions, and resulting specific functions.

While marketing departments have wanted better-tasting and longer-lasting encapsulated flavors, less sweet bulking agents, and functional linear fibers, those companies that completely understood the relationship between molecular weight distributions, shape, and function were able to optimize these products rapidly for specific needs. Market needs went hand-in-glove with technical ability to produce the needed material.

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• Understanding the relationship between fat structure and metabolism offers new options. One of the bright hopes of the low-fat era was finding a fat that tasted like a fat but didn’t metabolize to provide nine calories per gram. The usual way was to increase the water phase and tie the water up with something, managing water activity, sweetness, viscosity, and other characteristics. The understanding of reshaping the lipid molecule has offered another product for reducing the caloric load—eat the fat, but defy the stomach to break it down.

The first product to be developed—Procter & Gamble’s olestra—passes through the digestive tract unchanged, while salatrim, a product developed by Nabisco and sold by Danisco, is only partially digested, reducing but not eliminating calories. Because various categories of foods—chocolate, ice cream, cheese, potato chips—were felt to be a problem because of fat content, they were developed using the new fats fairly rapidly.

The market pull was evident for these products made with reduced fat calories. Because the products taste almost precisely like the originals, they have not suffered the fall-off of popularity after consumers have tasted the product a few times.

Possibly because there was a long lag time between development and Food and Drug Administration approval, marketing and development groups have had time to consider how to best use these new ingredients. The manufacturers of the ingredients licensed their use to meet certain market goals: Frito-Lay got sole use of potato chips with olestra, in exchange for interaction with building a manufacturing facility, and P&G used the fat derivative for its Pringles, snacks that are made with a potato or corn mash. Nabisco licensed specific manufacturers for salatrim, to maximize profitability.

Product development based on science isn’t a true push-pull situation. Rather, it is using the basic sciences that a company has at its disposal to find the best possible way of filling a consumer need.

Using Technology to Meet Market Needs
Here are examples of foods that have used technology to meet market needs:
• Better Frozen Pizza. The cardboard disc of dough that resembled the cardboard packaging disc has changed into a fresh-tasting delight. Pizza has used the following technologies to become consumer friendly: cold-resistant yeast; sausage that doesn’t turn rancid, thanks to encapsulated salt; and cheese that melts perfectly, using new additives and time–temperature processing.

• Salads in the Bag. Advances in this category include new modified-atmosphere packaging and new films that maintain the atmosphere; tomatoes that don’t turn the lettuce yellow because they have “turned-down” ethylene production; and cleaning methods for vegetables that “zap” bacteria.

• Safe Eggs. Advances in this area include a new pasteurization method that allows shell eggs to be used raw with impunity; liquid pasteurized eggs for cooking and baking; and omega-3 eggs.

• Healthier Chocolate Products. Low-fat chocolate, healthy chocolate, and—in the future—nutraceutical chocolate may result from partly nondigestible fat; studies on the anticancer activity of cocoa; and studies from the Harvard School of Public Health that indicates that those who eat chocolate live longer.

• Juices More Freshlike. Full-strength, blended, and enhanced or supplemented juice beverages sold in drink-boxes, bulk containers, bottles, or other containers are very often held aseptically at one point or another. Learning to hold juice aseptically in bulk was a major technical advance. Specificity in pasteurization has eliminated virtually all “cooked” flavors, and enhancement with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants has been done so well that the juice tastes like just-squeezed, pure juice.

• Healthier Meats. Technology in breeding animals that have more lean and less fat has been joined with better understanding about animal rations designed to provide lean muscle. Recent work suggests that rations can be designed to enhance nutritive content of meat, eggs, and milk.

Strong Technical Elements and Reason for Being Are Necessary
Whether it is marketing pull or technology push that gets new products out of the door and onto the shelf, the products that make long-term profits are likely to be those that have both a strong technical element plus a strong reason for being introduced. Products that occur when a basic shift in population demographics has emerged and this shift intersects with new technology can often perform better than products developed for less-compelling reasons.