Opportunities in reformulation

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September 29, 2016

by Luisa Robertson


In the food and drinks industry, there’s a clamouring from multiple directions for manufacturers to take responsibility for making their products healthier and to reduce salt / sugar / fat etc. On the one hand, there is demand placed on manufacturers in the UK from the government (with an eye on cutting down public health bills). Many manufacturers have already signed up to specific actions as part of the Responsibility Pledge, with different levels of commitment required. Supposed social pressure is also rife, with companies that once enjoyed high levels of success as lunchbox staples being forced to reconsider formulations or innovate to be deemed suitable under school policies. The spotlight of social and political pressure is firmly on manufacturers to take positive steps to reformulation, even in categories which are not traditionally regarded as healthy.

Coupled with this, there seems to be nothing that the British press like more than naming and shaming manufacturers and finding flaws in their health credentials. No one is safe, especially not well-known (and loved) brands! Often confusing, there are a wealth of messages filtering out to consumers on a regular basis, thus placing even more pressure on manufacturers. Avoiding reformulation isn’t an option!

But what do consumers want?

Are consumers demanding that manufacturers make their products healthier? Are they calling for food and drink companies to reduce or even remove salt and sugar content? Our research has shown that UK consumers are actually pretty pragmatic and on the whole seem to take responsibility for their own diets and how healthy they are. Just 12% claim that they think food manufacturers should take primary responsibility for the amount of sugar in their diet (vs. 84% thinking that it is their own responsibility). To provide a bit of context, this figure is nearly four times higher in China, with consumers in this market placing more onus on manufacturers. Therefore, surely manufacturers ‘proactively’ looking to reformulate their products should be positively received - an added bonus almost?

Unfortunately that’s not always the case, and getting it right isn’t easy! As Kellogg’s found out in 2013, consumers are much less accepting of product changes which impact their overall consumption experience or even if they can just notice a difference. Large positive changes to the Original Special K variant (including an 11% reduction in salt and 40% reduction in saturated fat) were positively received on the whole. But in today’s connected world of social media where every consumer has a voice, the backlash was picked up by The Grocer and Kellogg’s was forced to justify their move. This additional context, where the voice of the few and opinion of the minority can be heard by many, adds even more pressure to manufacturers on the journey to reformulation.

Consumers want to have their cake and eat it!

Consumers are particularly unforgiving of changes to well-known and loved products (often giving Own Label equivalents a head start in the race for reformulation). We asked UK consumers if they would be prepared to sacrifice taste for food and drink products to be made healthier. Whilst we appreciate that the simplicity of this direct question hides the deeper and more complex relationship people have with food and the drivers of choice we were interested in the relative importance people claim to place on the health vs. taste spectrum. Results showed a roughly even split – with 47% claiming they would be willing to make the sacrifice (11% strongly agreeing) vs. 53% not prepared to sacrifice taste (21% strongly disagreeing). This is partly driven by the fact that today, so many healthier options that are also tasty are available on the market. But it also reflects that for a large proportion of consumers, health concerns are not their top priority. We therefore need to understand broader consumer attitudes to health and well-being in order to identify the areas in which reformulation can represent the biggest opportunities. A further sign of the majority of UK consumers being fairly pragmatic is evidenced by the fact that 60% claim to follow the principle of ‘everything in moderation’ when it comes to their diet. However, when we look at the bigger picture, health is on the radar! Just under half of consumers are concerned about or are looking to improve their health – showing that there is an opportunity to connect with them as manufacturers. Although this could be through education and links with other activities as well as through reformulation. Half claim they check ingredients labels when shopping, a higher proportion than the third claiming to check GDA information. Coupled with the growing trend for clean label, shows the importance of giving careful consideration to what is going in to products as well as what is coming out! Even if the reformulation is making a product better for consumers on the whole (with a reduction in salt, sugar, fat for example), we need to be mindful of the whole ingredients list and how that will be received by consumers.

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People do recognise that their diets can improve – sugar being seen as the ‘nasty’ which is most top of mind for consumers with nearly half feeling that they have too much in their diets. However, we also see 1 in 5 claiming they have too much Sweeteners in their diet – a trend I expect we’ll see continue with a growing cynicism around artificial sugar replacements in particular. Macro health trends (such as adopting a long view on health rather than quick fix diets and recognition of the specific health benefits intrinsically offered by ingredients) provide the context within which reformulated products are judged and are thus important to keep in mind when planning product changes. They can be evidenced by the evolution of categories over time, echoing the changing landscape of consumer demand – for example chilled yoghurts have seen a shift from convenience / pleasure based single desserts, to a proliferation of diet / light offerings, to products offering specific health benefits to today’s latest trend of intrinsic health as delivered by Greek yoghurt taking the US by storm.

So despite this apparent lack of demand from consumers, manufacturers have to take the lead because if you wait for consumers then it will be too late – and you can guarantee your competitors will be there first!

We’re advocating a change in attitude so that reformulation is regarded holistically as a strategic means for gaining competitive advantage and not simply a necessity forced upon us by social and political pressure. To this end, we have distilled our experience from working with many manufacturers over the years to help them reformulate their products into five key suggestions.

1) Work with consumers

Working with consumers from an early stage helps to take the guess work out of product reformulation and increase your chance of getting it right first time rather than going through multiple rounds of prototype development and testing. It’s important to understand how much scope there is to tweak product delivery and how much flexibility consumers will allow in return for a healthier product. Whilst the starting point for reformulation is often in the lab or kitchen, understanding the parameters from the outset defines the job in hand and how the reformulation will need to be staged. What’s more, early consumer connection can help guide the context for the relaunch for example whether changes should be communicated and how to ensure that the whole proposition is compelling.

2) Have a holistic view

When reformulating, don’t just focus on the most infamous nasty at any given time. Adopt a holistic approach to assess the full ingredients list and manufacturing process. You may uncover opportunities to make product improvements and even identify cost saving opportunities whilst reformulating. Understanding the role that each sensory attribute plays in terms of contributing and reinforcing your brand equity will help define what can / can’t be changed or at least the level of risk associated with product changes. With the growing clean lable trend and the consumer tendency of using ‘natural’ as a heuristic for healthy potential exists here to connect with people and drive competitive advantage through reformulation.


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3) Don’t just focus on removing ‘baddies’

When making product changes, consider potential for adding good stuff in! For example considering whether alternative ingredients are more positively received by consumers or offer specific benefits. However, again it is important to understand the level of permission from consumers to tamper with their products so don’t neglect consideration of your natural credentials or underestimate consumer cynicism. Consider too your supporting comms – it might not always be appropriate to call out product changes even if they are improving a product from a health perspective.

4) Aim for love not just like

As we saw earlier, consumers are split in terms of the level of importance they place on health. Reformulation targeting mainstream acceptance is likely to result in average at best products which fail to delight either those that are taste driven or those seeking healthier options. Understand who you will be targeting and how / if this might change following reformulation. Then optimise your product with these people in mind.

5) Improve delivery of brand promise

Go beyond liking when assessing the acceptability of your product changes to consumers and recognise that reformulation can be an opportunity to increase the delivery of your brand promise. Deeper emotional and functional benefits are driven by sensory characteristics and it is at this deeper level that a less conscious reaction to the proposition occurs and determines whether the product lives up to expectations or not. Understanding the conceptualisations that sensory attributes cue and the impact that reformulating a product has on the emotional and functional benefits delivered by the product is essential to ensure that the overall experience is not negatively affected.

If your product needs to change sensorially then understanding the impact this has on the consumer experience and scope to amend your positioning to better fit will help ensure that you maintain a consonant and satisfying consumer experience overall.

Keeping these top 5 tips in mind when embarking on reformulation as well as the broader context within which consumers will receive your product will help you capitalise on the opportunity that reformulation can present.