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Connect4Action: Improving communication between key players in the food innovation process

Posted: 23 June 2014 | New Food | No comments yet

Novel food products and technologies sometimes fail in the marketplace due to a lack of communication between food product/technology experts and consumer insight experts in the innovation process. The objective of Connect4Action is to improve communication between consumers, consumer scientists, food technology developers, and other key players in the new product/technology development and commercialisation process. This will contribute to an improvement of the multidisciplinary dialogue and is expected to result in new food products that are superior in targeting the true needs and desires of consumers, thereby lowering the failure rate of new food technologies in Europe.

Consumer-to-business and business-to-consumer; what is missing?

Connect4ActionImproved communication between food technology developers and consumers finds its basis in making the voice of the consumer heard, as a starting point for new product ideas and consumer-desired product design. Two literature reviews regarding consumer-led new product development (NPD) and the food innovation process were conducted within the Connect4Action project. The first focused on communication between consumers and those responsible for consumer science within companies (external communication). The second review focused on communication between functional disciplines (mainly food technology developers and consumer scientists) within the company (internal communication).

Communication between food companies and end consumers takes place in three different processes of information exchange:

  • Understanding of consumer needs and wants (consumer-to-business communication)
  • Identification of consumer reactions to ideas developed by the company (business-to-consumer communication
  • Interactive approaches, where end consumers become co-designers of the new product (two way business-and-consumer communication).

The literature review shows that current insight is dominated by business-to-consumer and consumer-to-business communication. However, both of these fields have developed in poorly integrated ways with a lack of truly coherent approaches. What is missing is a shared thinking, as well as agreed models and approaches on how consumers make decisions in terms of new product acceptance and adoption. Although a large variety of drivers of new product acceptance have been identified, the lack of shared models and thinking prevents a critical insight into the relative importance of these drivers in different contexts and situations. Interactive means of communication, in which consumers are actually co-designers in the NPD process (rather than kept at arm’s length), have emerged in several industries. However, the literature review shows that such approaches are virtually absent in the food industry.

Internal communication on the other hand involves the communication between functional disciplines within the company. The literature review identified a large number of potential barriers and facilitators for an effective and efficient internal communication. These reside primarily at the level of organisational structure, team composition, management support, and knowledge management. In addition, the optimal intensity of communication between different functional disciplines was found to depend on the level of external (market turbulence) and internal (technological) uncertainty, and the phase of the NPD process, with a higher need for communication at an earlier point (e.g. opportunity identification), compared to later stages.

An important conclusion is that there is a shortage of studies aimed at the food industry. Optimal communication models designed for the food industry are required, encompassing validated and interactive means of communication. Further research should focus on specifics of the food industry (e.g. dominance of SMEs in this sector) with a focus on understanding the internal communication process itself (rather than focusing on its outcomes), leaving room for the identification of cultural differences and the role of those in business culture.

Involving key players in the common dialogue

In addition to science and product experts working with technology and processing issues, new technology development (NTD) and NPD need input from different actors in the food domain. Consumers, regulators, and different interest groups should be considered as possible stakeholders affecting the final acceptance of new technologies and products. These possible interest groups have to be identified on a case-by-case basis and assess whether involving them in the process would be beneficial to the NTD and NPD processes. An open dialogue with different interest groups may enable an early detection of possible barriers and facilitators for the acceptance of new products and technologies.

In the innovation process, food science and technology background provides expertise to develop tangible product attributes, while consumer and market experts try to understand what the consumer needs and desires are and how to communicate the product benefits to the consumer. Combining these different types of expertise requires successful communication within the innovation process. In Connect4Action, we have extracted recommendations on facilitators and possible barriers of communication from the literature and a survey with stakeholders.

What thwarts and what enhances effective communication?

The main barrier for successful communication is the different language that people coming from different disciplinary backgrounds use. To overcome this barrier there needs to be sufficient time and possibility to develop a shared language and understanding of the goals in innovation processes. Organising the innovation activities in cross-functional teams promotes the communication between the disciplines through formal meetings where experts with different backgrounds participate. Furthermore, knowledge management systems, which allow efficient data sharing so that different experts have an access to information gathered both by consumer and technology experts, can promote communication.

There is, however, a balance between formalising and centralising the NPD and NTD activities. Decentralised teams are empowered to make decisions about how to proceed (or not) in NTD/NPD processes, but at the same time the decisions made in single teams may not be accessible to the whole organisation. Formalisation of activities will improve communication between marketing and R&D because the team members are forced to share information at scheduled face-to-face meetings or via knowledge management systems. A high level of formalisation leads to better integration between marketing and R&D due to less role ambiguity and conflict between functions, but should also allow the more informal encounters. Finding the right balance of empowering the teams to pursue their set goals and keeping up sufficient information flow from development teams to the other parts of the organisation requires case-by-case assessment.

Building successful communication between food and consumer experts in NTD and NPD processes requires support from management by organising activities in cross-functional teams, providing necessary resources for adequate knowledge management systems and time for building the shared language. Rewarding the innovation teams on their shared performance achievement of commonly set goals is important rather than rewarding each discipline based on their individual tasks.  

A common language between consumer and food experts enables developing shared goals at the early stages of idea generation and screening. If different experts working in the innovation process have a collective understanding of what the goals of the process are, they are able to work more independently in the latter stages of development without losing common direction. Furthermore, better understanding of other professionals’ input creates trust and makes the information coming from other experts more actionable.

The more radically innovative the new technology or product is, the more important it is to involve both consumer and food experts in the development process at early stages. The same applies to market uncertainty. Radical innovations or high market uncertainty indicate higher risk for consumer acceptance, and therefore understanding the market and being able to anticipate the market responses is crucial for the success of new technologies and products.

Connect4Action in the spotlight

At the moment, we are finalising the toolbox and accompanying training modules that have been developed with the aim to assist communication during the food innovation process. More information can be found on our project website: www.connect4action.eu/toolbox. These, and other updates, are managed by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC); dissemination leader in this project.

The project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration (Grant Agreement No 289023).

To learn more about the Connect4Action project, visit the project website: www.connect4action.eu or contact project coordinator, Karin Zimmermann at: [email protected]

Upcoming events

Connect4Action is organising two training events in November 2014, in conjunction with the 27th EFFoST International Conference in Uppsala, Sweden. The training events are targeted at industry and young academics respectively, and will present a final toolbox as well as training modules but also offer guidance on applying these at your own company or university.

If you are interested in participating in one of these workshops, please contact Katerina Palascha at: [email protected]. A few travel scholarships are available.

Please also check www.connect4action.eu for updates on the final conference, which is taking place in Brussels at the end of October 2014 in conjunction with our partner project RECAPT.

References

Jacobsen, L.F., Grunert, K.G., Søndergaard, H.A., Steenbekkers, B., Dekker, M., Lähteenmäki, L., Improving internal communication between marketing and technology functions for successful new food product development, Trends in Food Science & Technology (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.tifs.2014.03.005.

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