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P&G Professional executive: Innovation comes in many forms

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This blog series is brought to you by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA), the leading trade association for the foodservice industry. This series will focus on ways to optimize across the entire supply channel and bring consumers back to foodservice.

Innovative product ideas can come from anywhere, from the employees who make a product to the customers who use it in their homes and businesses.  I talked with Norb Mayrhofer, global vice president of Procter & Gamble Professional at Procter & Gamble, about innovation in the foodservice industry and how companies can maximize creativity and value while minimizing risk.

How can methodologies and best practices be applied to innovation in the foodservice industry?

I see a few ways this can happen.  Within a given segment or even category, learning “best practices” from another business in the same segment or category can be an easy innovation a company can implement.  The same can be said, again within the industry, from another segment (i.e. QSR to fast casual) or category (plastic cutlery to cleaning products).  Perhaps the biggest innovation ideas, however, can take place across industries; for example, how a company could learn about delivering quality and speed by learning the principles of how a pit crew at a Formula 1 race operates.

Where do ideas for product innovation come from?

All over, really.  The answer to question 1 has a few good examples.  When the product owner or manager sees the whole playing field of what the desired experience with a product is and what the actual usage steps and experience are, there can be plenty of innovation on the product, the package, the delivery method, etc.  Also, most products are used in the context of other products and services.  Years ago, for example, McDonald’s answered a french fry initiative from Burger King by ensuring their fries stayed hot longer by double-bagging them, a simple but successful innovation.

Are product improvements more common than new products?

Yes, I believe so.  Truly, new products typically take significant time and investment and most companies can only resource so many.  Most existing products must have some sort of renewal process to help them stay fresh or else they risk commoditization.  Tide Detergent has been the No. 1 selling laundry detergent among U.S. consumers since 1946, and it has been improved literally hundreds of times since it was first introduced.

Are new-to-world products the most desired type of innovation?

Not always.  Completely new-to-the-world products can have tremendous success if they answer a previously unmet need in a compelling way.  In professional settings, they often require significant operational changes that may or may not be easy to do, sometimes making them less attractive.  Innovation can come in many forms (product, packaging, cost, ease of use/disposal, etc.), and I think once you get past the “this turns night into day” ones, the ones most likely to gain acceptance are the ones easily integrated into a customer’s existing operations.

How do you assess and manage the risks that come with innovation?

You need to be clear on what you are trying to fix or solve, on the relative value of the solution to the potential customer and to the innovator, and of the cost to bring it to the market.  I am sure, for example, that Campbell’s could produce a better tomato soup if they didn’t care about their own costs and if customers were willing to pay them back entirely for their investment.  The truth is that they make a pretty good tomato soup today and anything they would do tomorrow to the product itself would have to be a better value to the customer … for them to want to make the investment.  You also need to have good discipline while you invest.  New product efforts can take on lives of their own unless they are part of a rigorous and disciplined process.

One of the greatest innovation challenges in foodservice is striking a balance between making a product with a regulated production method for manufacturers that can be customized by the consumer. How do you work on striking this balance?

We do some of this today with customers who want and need to have tailored cleaning and hygiene programs.  Often, we can formulate products to meet their specific needs and procedures either in our plants or on site if needed and stay within industry and governmental and reasonable financial guidelines.  The balance comes from recognizing and balancing the various customer, consumer, regulatory and economic needs, which must be met along the way, and making adjustments that deliver the need and still meet those criteria.

Do you connect with your customers to see how they are using products at home? Have any innovations been inspired by customers?

All the time.  We spend $2 billion a year on research, and much of that time is spent in consumers’ homes and customers’ businesses to immerse ourselves in their activities.  In answering your second question, I’d actually turn it around and ask if any successful  innovations are NOT inspired by customers, and the answer is very, very few.