COVID-19: Driving Change and Creating Opportunity for Food and Beverage Innovation

Interview with David Hamilton, Chief Innovation Officer

Innovation in food and beverage is more important than ever, but the way in which we innovate has changed. Consumers still seek new products, but understanding how consumer lives are changing is imperative in creating better innovation. David Hamilton, Chief Innovation Officer at Kerry, explains how we need to be ahead of the insight to create something that will really stand out for consumers and how things like technology and sustainability are impacting the innovation process.



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Interview notes:

Damien: David, welcome. It looks like fewer products are being launched right now and retailers and producers are narrowing their ranges. Is it true to say that innovation is less important now than it was before COVID-19?

Lockdown has led everybody to think differently about food and thinking differently about the food supply chain, and it seems many of us are talking and thinking differently about the food that we consume. One of the things we found amongst our family and friends is that we're describing tastes rather than ingredients in the way that perhaps we talked about ingredients more before lockdown. Is there some opportunity here, and a value for organizations, in moving taste back to the fore of the consumers consideration of food?

David Hamilton: I'll jump straight in. No, it's probably more important than ever. I would agree that over the last few months innovation or product launches have reduced for the obvious reasons. We can't do factory trials with our customers, QSR restaurants have closed, so it has reduced. But it is picking up and picking up quite fast because consumers are looking for different products.

Their lives have changed, and they're working from home a lot more. They're not traveling as much. They're not eating on the go up, and they're wanting different experiences. Innovation is now ramping up. I think the trick here is to really understand the market and our consumers and how their lives are changing.

In the past we have all been madly busy, grabbed a snack bar or piece of fruit, jumped in the car, jumped on the train, jumped on a plane, and we'd be on our way. Breakfast is now being eaten later in the morning. Consumers are trying to be far healthier around what they eat to start their day, and obviously they’re preparing. The fact is that even if they're sitting at their laptop, they want their food to be far more enjoyable and a better experience.

I think what we've got to learn now is what are the new layers that consumers are looking for because COVID has brought around a huge concern of trust and a new desire to be healthier for obvious reasons. Consumers are looking for a better experience from food that they’re eating and it could be taste, could be texture. But when you look at the new layers that are really emerging, I would say taste will always be number one really, but there's a huge new layer around safety which we can all comprehend. There's another layer around natural because natural means it will be healthier, and I will stay safer in the current environment. There are layers around sustainability that have been playing around in the background for a long time, but that actually now also means locality. So again, where is my food coming from? And then on the back of that you've got to bring your experiences so that people can feel far more excited about what they're eating.

Damien:We talked a lot about the idea of customer and consumer insight being a driver for innovation, but on your side, the insights come from the market and from your customers. What do you have to do it then to get this kind of breakthrough innovation? What are the other pieces? The customer insight for sure. What are the other pieces of the jigsaw on the supply of innovation to the market?

David: I think it's actually a fantastic game, this game of innovation. When we're getting an insight, in reality it means the whole world knows about it. So to truly win in innovation, you've actually got to be ahead of those insights. So there is a real game in that space. We need to make sure we have the insights that mean we’ll get the scale and the win. But sometimes technology and new thinking then creates the insight. If you think of doing some consumer research, you sit with consumers and put a product on the table. They will decide if they want it or not. You don't put any products on the table and ask them what they want, they can't answer that. We are often creating the insights by putting products in front of consumers and changing the way they think.

I think there's a piece for me where consumers now understand food, but our customers—be it supermarkets or restaurants—want more from it. It needs to be more sustainable and needs to be longer life with less waste through the process. They want more taste. They want less salt, less sugar. Technology is playing a huge role in how we lead out on innovation, and innovation can be the next amazing thing or it can be just halving the sugar in a can of fizzy pop up. What we have to do is merge food craft, science, technology and insight and when you can merge all those four together you can really win because you do need all four and more than ever. Now science and technology is playing a key role because of the sustainability message, the health messages. Over the last 10 years, technology and science has continued to play a bigger role. You look at how technology can fundamentally change the texture, the taste, the shelf life, but it can still be natural and still be an amazing product.

Damien: I like the characterization of innovation as a as a game. It gives us a sense of the excitement that's involved in the in the innovation of food.

I want to go back to something else you said at the start as well, which is about people working from home. WFH is the acronym of the moment. What’s really clear is that post-COVID-19, I don't think anybody's going back to work five days a week, maybe two or three days a week at home. Partly because we like it, partly for personal safety reasons. One of the nice things about being in the office is one day you can go to Indian place, another day you can go to a Chinese place, another day, go to Italian. Someday you can bring a sandwich from home. It’s a kind of game that we play with ourselves, yeah? Working from home is going to change our relationship with food, isn’t it?

David:Absolutely. There are many ways to look at this, and in my head it changes almost weekly at the moment, but there are some fundamental facts we can hold onto. I went out, taking the dog to the vet couple weeks ago, and I was queuing up on the roundabout and there wasn't much traffic. So why was I queuing at the roundabout? They'd opened the Burger King drive-through on the corner. People are desperate to get out and have those fixes. I think for the two or three days a week that they're traveling or out, they will always want them. I think there will be a challenge for the restaurants on how they cook and how they serve. There's a lot of work to do with them to help their delivery be different and better.

I think when you are in the home versus out of the home, it's how we can now bring out of the home into the home. Let me give you a couple of examples on this. A QSR restaurant that’s huge out there in the world – I've known them and known the leaders of those businesses for a long time. They have said we will never develop with supermarkets. You will only ever be able to eat our products in our restaurants. Lo-and-behold, they teamed up with a direct-to-consumer model and you can now get all their ingredients and cook their products in the house. They will deliver them to you so you can almost have that restaurant experience in the home. I think there will be a lot of wins there because the restaurant and the food-chain industry are without doubt going to lose some volume so that feels exciting. How can we create the right partnerships? You also have to bring the quality of the product into the home.

Damien: If I look across the various sessions we've done on the On the Horizon series, innovation just keeps pressing itself up the agenda. For you as a strategic leader of innovation, if you think back on the best cases of innovation, the best-case outcomes, what does a customer have to do to maximize their return on innovation from working with Kerry?

David:Number one, you’ve got to dance together. Collaboration, whatever you want to call it, I like to call it dancing because it's far more than collaborating. We’re creating something really different and there needs to be a bit of motion and care in there. You do have to dance together, and you've got to agree a plan and share from the start. We all need to win together. It's the only way to really deliver the goods, and we've got to be open from the start. So the strategy, the hurdles—what's the true outcome, and can we be allowed to challenge throughout the process because innovation is never a straight line. It pretty wavy, and it's so important. Obviously, we've got to be underscored by insight. And if we are a bunch of individuals on both sides of the fence that aren't close to the day-to-day business, we probably have a problem. We've got to truly understand their consumers, their business, how it works, how their systems work, be it going into a store and setting on a shelf, be it going into a restaurant. How does this product need to work through their systems? You can only do all of that by either being really close with your partners, your customers or just knowing them inside out. But either way you dance together, you tend to do a better project from start to finish. If halfway through, there are hurdles it might not work, you stop, but if you built that trust and care at the beginning, you’re happy to say, let's stop. And actually, let's rethink it. So again, dance together, that's the analogy I'd like to use.

Damien:You’ve given us a new language for innovation, David. That innovation is a game, and it's a game you dance together through. Thank you for your time today, David. We appreciate it. We have been On the Horizon. Stay safe, stay well and see you next time. Thank you very much.

About David:

David started his career in high-end professional kitchens, training and working within the UK and Europe, followed by a stint managing groups of kitchens and hotel group business development before joining Dairy Crest 27 years ago in product development.

Though he only worked a single year at Dairy Crest, it inspired a lifelong passion that has carried him through 26 years at Kerry, where he is currently Chief Innovation Officer.

Initially employed in product development, David moved into technical and commercial roles prior to taking on wider Kerry Foods and now Kerry Group Innovation Roles.

“I have a restless desire to constantly improve our people, our ways of working and the creation of amazing products. It is what makes Kerry stand out in the marketplace and makes me proud to work for this business”. Linking insight, food craft, technology and, above all, science, are the key elements of David’s approach to innovation. “You link all of those and you can create that bit of magic,” he says.

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