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Special edition: Reformulation

New flavors can broaden product line's appeal, but won't supplant old standbys

By Hank Schultz , 18-Dec-2012

Introducing a new flavor can be one way to reinvigorate a brand or to extend a line, but consumers will always return to their core flavor preferences, says an expert.

Kantha Shelke, principal of Chicago-based food consultancy CorvusBlue, said consumers’ preferences for certain flavors are formed early in life, and those preferences put down deep, sturdy roots.

“These flavor preferences are formed somewhere between ages two to four and age six,” she told FoodNavigator-USA.

“A person chooses a flavor depending on their upbringing.  The number one reason why they pick any flavor that is what their mom served.  If you have a household that buys Cherry Coke then that child gets so used to Cherry Coke that nine times out of 10 that is what they will choose, unless they develop an aversion to that flavor.”

New flavors can add incremental sales

That’s not to say that trying new flavors is a waste of time, Shelke said.

“Changing flavors can do more than just reinvigorate an older brand.  It can help develop a new consumer base and even spawn other line extensions,” she said.

“For example, the introduction of certain East Indian spices has transformed potato chips and crackers from stand-alone snacks into popular Indian appetizers and even part of meal menus. In addition to ushering the food into new demographics, some flavors, such as pomegranate and goji and acai, can actually create a halo of health uses and coax consumers into more frequent consumption.”

Preference for old standbys

Bringing in new flavors can help pump up the sales of a product line, Shelke said.  But consumers tend to return to their staples, so when product developers do their market projects for new products they should bear in mind that new, unusual or exotic flavors may bump the sales needle for a while, but are unlikely to have the staying power of standard flavors.  And while new, unusual flavors may be a way to add sales around the fringes, don’t expect to invent a flavor that will replace vanilla, she said.

“When you are trying to introduce a new flavor to a population you need to think about the age of the demographic that you are going for,” Shelke said.

“The younger generation these days seems to like something vibrant, something that pops, so extreme flavors do appeal to them. However, when all is said and done, people always return to the old standbys.  Every now and then they will reach out to the goji fruit or açai, but those flavors don’t tend to last as long.”

Case studies—ice cream and coffee

Shelke used the example of two product categories—ice cream, coffee—to illustrate how difficult it can be to move the taste needle very much.

“Look at the ice cream category: The three flavors you always see are chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.  If you go to France, you will see vanilla, chocolate and hazelnut.  If you go to India, you’ll see vanilla, mango and then chocolate.  You see the same thing over and over,” she said.

Of course there are dozens of ice cream flavors in supermarkets, but the sales of all those other flavors combined pale in comparison to the big three.

“They find this especially in the coffee flavors.  The hazelnut coffee is the only coffee flavor that has really lasted.  All the other flavors, like amaretto, come and go, but they are not as solid as hazelnut,” Shelke said.

“Why?  Because the hazelnut coffee was one of the first flavors to be launched. And it has imprinted itself on in minds of shoppers.  To them it was the fun thing they had during Christmas because their aunt took them out for shopping.  So they have this nostalgic connection. They may try the raspberry coffee but they don’t come back to buy it time and again,” she said.

Good first impression

This association of flavor with memory is why it is so important that product developers consider that whole experience when introducing a new product, Shelke said.  The aroma, the texture, the packaging, the whole brand message has to work in conjunction with the new flavor to create that all-important first impression.

“When we come across new aromas, whether cumin seed, turmeric and cardamom or sarsaparilla or apple-cinnamon, then our brain does a quick check and tells us to be cautious, if it is a new flavor. 

“Flavors that are associated with good experiences are usually remembered well and therefore accepted the second and third time around, whereas flavors associated with uncertainty or unpleasant experiences can really turn us off.  It is therefore very important that food companies usher in their new flavors with a pleasant association to ensure liking and repeat purchase,” she said.

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