From food concept to reality – twelve hot tips

To become a successful 21st century commercial venture, products and brands have to deliver benefits and an experience which is superior to existing products – only by doing so will your product be viewed as attractive by consumers and persuade retailers to list your product.

Having what seems to be a unique idea is a fantastic start, but there is much work to do to determine the true potential of an idea, including exploring the opportunities for concept optimisation and future proofing.

Today, no product sector is devoid of established products and whilst in the last Millennium there were numerous brands for whom there was no competition, that is no longer the case with every product having to compete to attract consumers and carve out an audience – all of whom have a myriad of choice.

And if you’re selling online, whilst the challenge of securing retail space doesn’t apply, none the less your product and brand has to create a relationship with potential customers whereby they value your idea over and above the competition.

So here are my twelve hot tips:

1. Research
Make online searches to find relevant market data for your idea. If you live in the UK, then the British Library in London provides access to a huge raft of information free of charge whereas purchasing the same data can cost thousands of pounds. 

Attend a number of the swathe of food and drink events and trade shows, not only to increase your understanding of the sector by attending them, but they’re great for meeting useful contacts too. And don’t be afraid about sharing your idea with others, you are more likely to gain from doing so rather than suffer. However, if you’re concerned about confidentiality, share the minimum of information until you have a non-disclosure agreement in place.

2. Opportunity and feasibility
If your product appears to be unique, you may think that because nothing exists in the market that no one has ever thought of it. Whilst this might be the case, it may be that others explored the idea before you and either found that it wasn’t possible to commercialise the idea due to manufacturing constraints or that it was too expensive to produce. Or indeed that there simply wasn’t a demand for the idea.

However, consumer needs and market opportunities are always changing so you may want to seek expert help early on to assess its potential in-depth. Before you do so, undertake internet searches, not just in your home country but worldwide – see if you can find any evidence of a similar or identical product having been produced previously and assess whether they are on sale today.

3. Demand
Get friends and family to sample your products, even though your commercial product may differ. You need to assess quickly and at no cost whether it is worth progressing further. And ask them to give you truthful rather than kind feedback – not just telling you what they think you want to hear. Whilst this isn’t a particularly scientific approach and can’t be viewed as robust, it can give you useful, initial feedback. You can then decide whether formal, consumer research is a good investment as the next step.

4. Proof of concept
Next step is to test your initial concept with paying customers. You don’t need final packaging or branding to do this but you do need to comply with trading standards requirements re labelling and in particular, allergens. Local markets, food festivals and farmer’s markets are perfect for this. You’ll get product feedback (particularly if you’re sampling) and you’ll be able to talk to customers about price too.  But a word of warning on this one. Selling products at these events invariably sees customers willing to pay a higher price than they will as part of their weekly shop. So you need to do your homework on likely price points in retail.

You should also start work on your business plan at this stage covering your short and longer terms objectives, market mapping and competitor analysis and routes to market.

5. Minimum viable product
Now you’re ready to take your learnings from your sales activity and use this to help you fully define your product, brand and packaging.  Competitor analysis and market mapping are key at this stage, as is being confident about your proposed selling price vs your competitors. And this is the time to pad out your initial business plan with robust numbers for scaling up.

You need to be clear about your gross margin targets and what retailers will expect across the whole range of independent, speciality, wholesale, food service and mainstream retail channels. And if launching online, you need to ensure that you take advantage of wholesaler and retailer margins within your selling price. This is really important because retailers will expect you to be comparatively more expensive online –  and you don’t want to discover that you don’t have adequate margin to give them a better price.

6. Plan
You will need to make sure you have the funds required to develop your idea and then to take it to market. You’ll need to develop a detailed financial model ensuring that you’ve included all costs associated with developing and manufacturing your product. ensuring that you’ve included ingredients, manufacturing, packaging, transport and logistics, a profit for you and adequate additional margin to distribute to wholesalers and retailers if you intend to sell through bricks and mortar outlets.

And revisit your business plan now insuring you create a profit and loss  and cashflow forecasts for at least 24 months.

Irrespective of whether you’re selling online or through retail, you will need funds for marketing support to create awareness and drive demand – sales won’t happen if potential customers aren’t aware of you or if you don’t promote. And my rule of thumb for working capital purposes is that you will need funds equivalent to your initial manufacturing costs plus three months turnover if you’re selling through retail and 2 months if selling online.

7. Identify expert partners
Start your search for the expert help you’ll need for the process of making your idea a reality.  At this stage you may want to start approaching companies to develop product samples or manufacturers but it’s far better to look towards an individual such as myselfthat can help you fully scope your project and support you through their broader expertise. You may also well need help in relation to approved ingredients and all the various compliance issues surrounding food and drink manufacturing, including the very important aspect of food safety and accurate and legal packaging labelling.

There may be other things to consider before you start this stage of work, and I’m best-placed to help and guide you through all the various stages. Creating an optimised product brief in tandem with both brand and commercial strategies combined with robust market opportunity evaluation are proven to lead to success. And it’s key to have someone outside your business with the knowledge and expertise to question and challenge your thinking as well as to provide guidance and know-how.

9. Manufacturing
With your background work complete, now is the time to start to explore potential manufacturing partners. I have the expertise and knowledge to identify the most appropriate partners with expertise of similar products and with the ability to pack the product into your desired format – whether that be jars, bottles, trays, pouches, cartons, bags or indeed a new and novel packaging format – particularly with the increasingly important focus on recyclability and minimisation of environmental impact.

A visit to potential suppliers is the next step and at this point, initial manufacturing costs and minimum order levels can be determined which can be incorporated into your plan to provide greater detail on your manufacturing cost and selling price. Service level agreements and contracts also need to be considered at this stage in the process.

8. Pre-production
Your samples should be made using commercial ingredients which are produced much in the same way, albeit at a very small volume, as your commercial products will be and using the same production equipment.  If this isn’t the case, then there is a danger that organoleptic qualities will change once scaled-up and shelf life tests will not provide an accurate indication of product durability.

Getting all the components in place for this stage takes time and planning and most manufacturing partners won’t source or store ingredients on your behalf so you may need help with ingredient procurement and just in time supply chain management.

With samples produced, lab tests need to be undertaken to ensure product stability and achievement of the required shelf life, ensuring that discolouration, separation or flavour changes don’t occur during the usable life of your product. This is most challenging for chilled and ambient products but there are a number of things that can be done to maximise longevity during the product development stage.

10. Brand design and packaging

The next step is to appoint a business to design appropriate and practical structural packaging solutions along with brand and packaging design ideas. 

It may be that you have some ideas for your brand name, but an individual such as myself is best placed to assess these, not only in terms of strength of a brand name but also with regard to providing initial advice on the legislative aspects of registered trademarks.

Many brand innovation businesses include brand name creation as part of their services and if you commission this work from them they will undertake additional strategic work at the start of the project to provide a foundation for their name generation work.  

Typically, this part of the process may take up to a month depending on whether you need a UK, European or global brand name.  Either way, they will present brand identity options for your given name or options for created names for your consideration and choice.  

As already mentioned, it’s really important to ensure that any proposed brand name doesn’t conflict with an existing trademark before committing to it and progressing to brand and packaging design. Failure to undertake this very important stage can have serious, future consequences. (And this applies to clever product descriptions and strap-lines too.)

At worst this could lead to an existing brand asking for you to cease trading and withdraw your products until a resolution is reached.  And there is potential of course that an amicable conclusion isn’t reached, leaving you faced with the challenge of starting your branding and packaging work again with wasted packaging and product on your hands and a disruption to your sales.  

With a brand name chosen, it’s then on to packaging design and many designers will present brand identity options in situ on pack so that you can see your brand as it will appear on your product. They will often provide mock-ups at this stage too and visuals of your product in store.

11. Pre-production samples
Now it’s time to bring all the components together: product, brand design and physical packaging so that you can create a number of samples which are an accurate replication of what will be produced once you place commercial orders with your chosen manufacturer.  Most manufacturers will work with you at this stage to prepare a limited number of pre-production samples and your design partner will be able to produce packaging samples either independently or in conjunction with your manufacturer.

Now is the time to build in consumer testing, giving you an opportunity to gauge reaction to your product, branding, packaging and pricing so that any significant feedback can be taken on board before finalisation.

With product prototypes finalised, all your cost elements known and your background research guiding your retail price, you can now present your end product to potential retail stockists and undertake photography for your website and marketing purposes – or launch online.

12. Place manufacturing order
With retail listings secured or everything in place to launch your online business, packaging/labels and ingredients procurement and manufacturing can all be put in hand and the moment of transforming an idea to reality has arrived.

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