Operations | May 2013 | By Terah Shelton Harris

The New Face of R&D

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Fast food brands are using customer suggestions to develop new products.
Baskin-Robbins fans voted online to bring back the brand’s retired Pistachio Almond Fudge flavor. Baskin-Robbins
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Crowdsourcing campaigns can also boost a concept’s social media presence, as Sloan’s Ice Cream recently experienced.

Using a Facebook contest called “#MySloan’s Flavor Contest,” it put together a two-week-long competition that challenged fans to submit their own flavor creations for a chance to see them on the menu. Other fans participated by voting for the flavor they liked best.

“The flavor contest led to a number of organic new likes and increased fan interaction on Facebook,” says Sloan Kamenstein, founder of Sloan’s Ice Cream. “The winner, an Apple Caramel Crisp flavor, garnered a lot of positive press locally.”

Having customers share in the creation process also allows them to feel as if a brand is building a sense of community.

This leads to customers feeling like they are truly a part of the business, as well as a meaningful contributor to the company’s success, Kamenstein says. But it’s not without risks.

Corrigan says when a concept partially takes menu development out of the R&D team’s hands, it leaves itself open to many challenges. These can include increased operational complexity, off-brand positioning, issues in terms of distribution to locations systemwide, overall failure of the product, product cannibalization, and the creation of a product that drives away its original and loyal customer base.

Powills adds that by crowdsourcing, brands are also opening themselves up to criticism.

“That exposure is scary, because sometimes that amazing idea is not amazing after all,” he says. “Crowdsourcing is not for every brand, but I promise you one thing: Whether you want to crowdsource or not, it is already happening.

“People are talking about your brand and influencing your [average unit volume] simply through their personal opinions and buzz factors.”

Frankenthaler says new Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors and frozen desserts are ultimately created by the culinary team, but the brand has learned that social and culinary trends go hand in hand.

It takes both into account when coming up with new menu items or expanding existing product lines.

“We welcome guest feedback and creativity with open arms, but our culinary team leads the development of new menu items to ensure that every flavor and ice cream treat we introduce meets our standards for taste and quality,” he says.

Brands interested in using social media or online crowdsourcing to develop products and flavors, Powills says, should think of crowdsourcing as a consumer advisory council of sorts.

“It amazes me how many brands fail to ask their customers to provide research solutions,” he says. “Data stares brands straight in the face, yet many brands are afraid to look back.

“Crowdsourcing is an easy way to elevate your marketing efforts to have real tangible solutions,” he says.

Powills adds that if brands listen to customers’ comments and desires, “they can typically find data that can help them decide whether to push the product harder or scale back and remodel. Your customers decide whether your product will work or not.”

In the end, the most important advantage crowdsourcing gives a brand is another avenue to have fun with its fans, Kamenstein says.

“At Sloan’s, we strive to have fun online, offline, everywhere, 24/7,” he says. “If your brand and the people working to further it are having fun, customers can feel that. It’s a radiating effect felt wide and far.”

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