If you’re in the food and beverage industry, you are most likely reading on a daily basis that consumers want more new products that taste great and are healthy. These insights are pulled from consumer data gathered by a variety of companies like IRI, Mintel and Innova Market Insights.

The problem is, if everyone has access to the same information, how are any new products going to be different from one another?

Andria Long, vice president of innovation & consumer insights at Johnsonville, says the answer lies in connecting the dots between the disparate data and doing it in a way that no one has done before.

“That is the magic to a person that is great at innovation,” she says.

Long recently spoke at the Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network’s Innovation Breakfast Series and shared lessons learned from her 20 year-plus career in the food and beverage industry. She says the best people at innovation are people who have courage, tenacity and positivity.

“With the nature of the beast with innovation, I like to hire people that have a can-do attitude,” says Long. “You get knocked down in this business and you really need to be able to get back up and push a team to get excited about doing something that some of them don’t really want to do.”

She also looks for people who are okay with ambiguity and uncertainty. Great brand managers aren’t always the greatest at managing innovation, especially if they need to know exactly how something is going to get done.

“If you are not comfortable in the gray, you’re not going to do well,” she says. ““You’re not always going to know all the answers, so you’re going to have to use judgement.”

Long also says with innovation, it is important to start in the right place, which is with the consumer.

“One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is starting with an ideation meeting,” she says.

The best way to approach innovation is to start with the consumer and to solve a need. But she warns that the new product really has to solve the need in question, and the brand must be able to truly deliver the new product.

“Products fail when they don’t match the consumer need,” she says.

Another pitfall to watch out for is to not develop a new product based on the capabilities of a company. The company should not create something according to what it can make, but instead because of what the consumer wants.

“If there’s no differentiation, then there is no innovation,” Long says.

However, this can be easier said than done since driving change makes a lot of people really uncomfortable.

“Trying to change people’s thinking is one of the most difficult things to do,” she says.

This is especially true when a company has had years of success doing the same thing, which Long calls the “winner’s curse.” This is when a company that has experienced 50-plus years of consecutive growth doesn’t see a reason to change because what it’s done in the past has always worked.

“The arrogance of success is thinking what you did yesterday will be sufficient to do what you do tomorrow,” she says. “But what worked 10 years ago does not work today, even five years ago doesn’t work today.”

Long says companies must differentiate or they will die, and that to standstill is to create a burial ground. Companies’ longevity is being drastically shortened due to the rapid pace of change driven by the entrepreneurial start up community challenging big food and beverage companies.

“A great motivator of change is the fear that someone else is going to do it,” she says.

And she adds that the traditional barriers to entry in the food and beverage industry don’t exist now. With social media, big ad campaigns aren’t always necessary. And because of the network of co-manufacturers, companies don’t need to build production infrastructure themselves.

“You can go up against a deep, big, entrenched competitor and still win, as long as you have a viable consumer proposition and consumers are willing to pay for it because they see the differences and value in what you have versus the competition,” says Long.

For more information on the Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network, visit: https://www.chicagolandfood.org/