Conagra VP of Innovation: There is power to doing less, and don’t forget the chef

By Adi Menayang contact

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock/olm26250
Photo: iStock/olm26250
There’s great pride that comes with seeing a product still on store shelves decades after it was once just a figment on a drawing board. But as industry veteran Barry Calpino, VP of innovation at Conagra since April, admits, it involves weeding through a lot of ‘crap’ as well.

“Instead of hiring a consultant and spending million of dollars, get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the really good stuff,” ​Calpino told an audience of food and beverage entrepreneurs in Chicago last week, part of a new breakfast series launched by the MacArthur Foundation-backed Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network​.

The advice is especially true for bigger CPG firms with numerous brands in their portfolios. Calpino was quoting popular advice given by Steve Jobs to the then newly appointed Nike CEO Mark Parker​ back in 2006. It’s part of Apple’s minimalist approach to innovation, which Calpino said really resonated to him as an innovator.

“As an innovator, part of what makes you tick is you have a ton of ideas, you want to do a thousand things, but there’s power to doing less, and doing it well,” ​Calpino said.

Barry Calpino, VP of Innovation at Conagra.

Calpino has over 20 years of experience in the CPG industry, having worked for S C Johnson, Kellogg, Mars Wrigley, and Mondelez, to name a few. He helped develop and launch new products like Ziploc’s container line and the Special K protein line—far before protein was in vogue—to a life of longevity on store shelves.

Platforms, not products

The less is more philosophy is what helped Kraft get its ‘innovation groove back,’ as Forbes wrote in 2013​, when Calpino was serving as VP of breakthrough innovation for the company. “We tried to get focused, and our goal was to get to hundred-million-dollar platforms instead of a hundred new products,” ​Calpino said.

The company became more focused on big initiatives as opposed to a lot of activity. “What you learn in innovation, activity doesn’t stick, and it eats up a lot of resources.,” ​he added. So,, instead of multiple tiny launches, Kraft decided with a few big ones.

The strategy worked for Calpino and his team at Kraft. Over a three-year period, Kraft had multiple Nielsen Breakthrough Innovation awards, which he argued was a significant accomplishment because Nielsen requires products to have two years of success, and the second year has to perform as well as the first year.

These Kraft products included MiO Liquid Water Enhancer and Velveeta Cheesy Skillets in 2013, Gevalia Kaffe Retail Coffee in 2014, and Lunchables Uploaded in 2015.

Center-of-store ideas welcome

Just because there is a renaissance happening in a grocery store’s fresh and perimeter sections doesn’t mean the center-of-the-store is in the gutters, Calpino opined. “Retailers now get a ton of ideas for the perimeter, so they’re happy with center store ideas,” ​he said.

There is also the assumption that center store products are under threat because of all the technology available to order these items, meaning big CPG firms now have less of an advantage over smaller brands when it comes to competing on the ‘endless shelves’ of online groceries.

For this, Calpino has simple advice—first, don’t forget the chef when the rest of the company may be focused on artificial intelligence or virtual reality marketing. “Twenty years from now, people will still eat food,” ​he chuckled.

And finally, “make center store products fun, engaging, and good enough that people will buy it online or in the store.”

Related topics: R&D, Confectionery, Snacks

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