Operations | May 2013 | By Terah Shelton Harris

The New Face of R&D

Brands look to fans, social media to develop new products and flavors.

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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There’s no way around the truth that social media is now a critical tool for limited-service restaurant brands.

It plays an influential role in marketing and building brand identity, and allows concepts to reach out to and interact with fans and followers to build deeper relationships.

But using social media is about more than just advertising products and promotions on Facebook and Twitter.

Today, many brands in the industry are taking it a step further, using social media and crowdsourcing to help create new products and flavors.

And for good reason: Fifty-nine percent of online consumers are active on social networking sites at least weekly, and one-third of online users have become a fan of a brand or company via social platforms, according to an online survey by Forresters Research.

“When a brand becomes social with their customers, they empower the crowd to get behind their product, service, or brand,” says Nick Powills, chief brand strategist at No Limit Agency, a franchise-focused communications firm.

“Those brands that step above the pack with crowdsourcing may be the brands that experience the highest ROI from their social efforts.”

He adds that crowdsourcing is a savvy way to develop products, “because you can quickly identify whether the product has legs.”

“When a product launches, great brands are using their crowd to either name the product or critique it,” Powills says. “You may have the idea, the marketing, and the LTO push, but they ultimately decide if they want to spend money on your
product.”

Chicken-wing chain Wing Zone recently held a “Flavor Face-Off Contest” that solicited new wing flavor ideas from its customers. In return for their original ideas, the brand rewarded fans and participants with various prizes. For example, customers who simply submitted a flavor concept were awarded 10 free wings.

Once all ideas were submitted, the brand chose the top 32 flavors and held weekly voting via Facebook, where the most-liked flavors moved on to the next round. After each round, the creators of surviving flavors would win a prize, and the final winner—who came up with the idea for a Mango Fire flavor—received a tailgate party for 40 friends.

Some brands, like Baskin-Robbins, even go so far as to let the fans create an entire product from start to finish.

In 2010, the ice cream chain launched an online flavor-creation competition called “Create Baskin’s Next Favorite Flavor.” The annual contest invites fans to participate by concocting their own original ice cream flavors using Baskin-Robbins’ virtual flavor creator for a chance to have the new product featured in locations nationwide.

Each year, the Baskin-Robbins culinary team narrows down the online submissions to select finalists, who receive free ice cream for a year. Fans are then asked to vote online for their favorite flavor among the finalists, picking one standout flavor as the winner.

“Our annual ‘Create Baskin’s Next Favorite Flavor’ contest is always an exciting time for Baskin-Robbins because it is a fun way to engage with our fans while developing creative ice cream flavors to add to our flavor library,” says Stan Frankenthaler, Baskin-Robbins executive chef and vice president of innovation at Dunkin’ Brands.

“Over the past three years, tens of thousands of ice cream lovers have participated in the contest, which has created two delicious ice cream creations to date: Toffee Pecan Crunch and Nutty Cream Cheese Brownie,” he adds.

Dan Corrigan, marketing manager for Wing Zone, says there are many advantages to using social media to create new products.

First, there is a higher likelihood of customer acceptance, as a brand knows at least someone will want to try the product. Second, brands will likely increase loyalty, engagement, and consumer confidence, he says.

“You told fans you wanted their input, and then put their input into action,” Corrigan says. “They will continue to come back for that product because it is something they specifically asked for.”

Baskin-Robbins saw this firsthand in 2011. To honor its 66th birthday, the brand conducted a crowdsourcing campaign called “The Big Thaw,” in which it pledged to bring back one of the flavors it had retired to the “Deep Freeze” over the course of Baskin-Robbins’ history.

The chain invited fans to vote for one of 31 retired flavors they would love to see again at Baskin-Robbins shops, with the winning classic flavor making its return for guests to enjoy.

Frankenthaler says “The Big Thaw” was successful because the promotion engaged Baskin-Robbins’ loyal fan base and called attention to the brand’s longstanding and rich flavor heritage.

“Tens of thousands of fans voted for their favorite classic flavor over the course of the campaign, and in the end, Pistachio Almond Fudge was voted the winner by a landslide,” he says.

“The winning flavor was brought back to Baskin-Robbins shops as a limited-time quart, and our guests literally ate it up.”

Corrigan says when a brand uses social media or crowdsourcing to create new products, it not only can establish a better and stronger brand image, but it also makes the concept seem like a home-grown favorite that cares about the customer, what they feel, and what they have to say.

“You also create brand advocates that will spread the word about this product for you,” he adds.

“These brand advocates are some of your best resources because they are a more trusted source. People are more likely to take the advice of friends rather than a corporation.”

Corrigan says looking to customers for their input on products and flavors helps a brand build personal relationships with their most loyal fans, also giving them a way to reward them for being a brand advocate.

“Since these ... are fans and customers, it gives you the perfect forum to see what they want and expect from your brand,” he says.

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.”