Food Innovation: How Far Is Too Far?

Usually on this blog we focus on 5-Star marketing – the ideas, ads and branding strategies that lead to profitable growth using insights from our suite of market research platforms. But particularly in the Innovation space, you can learn a whole lot from the 1-Star ideas too. The gap between a market-ready idea and a flop is often a case of finding the right framing.

In this food and drink innovation case study, Emily Ozer looks at winning and losing ideas – from the tempting (Frozen Coca-Cola) to the somewhat niche. Anyone for Avocado Gelato?

How do you feel about pineapple on pizza?  Is putting ketchup on your hotdog a sin? And is white chocolate even chocolate!?  These are just some examples of the many heated food debates that have raged over the years.  No matter where you stand on the issues, we can all agree that food holds a special place in our hearts, and when we see the foods we love being consumed and combined in ways we don’t expect, we’re easily outraged.

This presents an interesting challenge for food and beverage brands looking to innovate.  Brands want to produce interesting, surprising, and exciting spins on the food and drinks people know and love, but go too far and your new product can easily backfire.

The key to innovation – in any category, not just food and drink – is to strike a balance between familiarity and novelty.  At System1, we call this Fluent Innovation.  New products must remind consumers of something they’re already familiar with, while simultaneously infusing just the right amount of novelty to excite and surprise.

We advise our clients to aim for 80% familiarity and 20% novelty – any more familiar and you’re stuck with the same old product.  But any more novel and you risk the product coming off as too strange and too unfamiliar to be readily accepted.  Yes, wild ideas will get press and maybe even foodie cachet – but we’re assuming that brands hunting for viable launches are looking for at least some level of mass acceptance.

In an effort to identify examples of Fluent Innovation in the market, we conducted an internally funded study on 9 real world products launched within the past year in the food and beverage space.  These ranged from condiment ideas (Heinz Mayochup, Slice of Sauce) to flavored water ideas (PepsiCo’s Drinkfinity, Twinings Cold In’Fuse) to ideas for sweet treats (Nestle’s Milkybar Wowsomes, the Avo-lato).

The results fell right in line with our predictions about Fluent Innovation: the winning ideas were much more familiar than they were new, and transformed existing products in ways that still lined up with consumers’ expectations about the product itself. In contrast, the losing ideas were so new and innovative that they stopped resembling the original product on which they were based and lost all the familiarity they could have been benefiting from.

Two of the ideas tested, Heinz Mayochup and Slice of Sauce, perfectly exemplify this trade-off. Both are innovations in the condiment space. Neither score especially well. But Mayochup, earning a high 2 star rating, is much more successful in its efforts than Slice of Sauce, which falls to the bottom of the 1 star range.

Why? Our hypothesis: Mayochup is innovating in the flavor space (combining Mayo and Ketchup) in a way that already lines up with consumer habits. It’s not uncommon for people to mix these two condiments on their own; in fact, many local regions already have names for this combination (Fry Sauce, Salsa Golf, Salsa Rosada…) and it’s so popular in Latin America that Goya already produces its own version, called MayoKetchup.

In contrast, Slice of Sauce is attempting to invent a new format and package for sauce, the likes of which the world has never seen. We expect sauces to be viscous and squirt out of a bottle, not pre-packaged, solid squares that resemble jelly more than they do sauce.

The emotional profiles for each innovation tell the story even more starkly. Slice of Sauce records sky-high Disgust (59%) whereas Mayochup has a rather healthier level of Happiness – though there’s still too much Disgust for comfort.

Slice of Sauce takes our expectations of what a sauce should be and turns it on its head – as a result, the concept is perceived as strange and off-putting.   Mayochup lines up well with our presumed expectations of sauce in a bottle, and introduces a flavor that is new for the brand but familiar to our palettes.  While the concept is still in need of some optimization in order to escape the 2 star range and become a success (perhaps changing the name!), it is tracking for a much more successful launch than its 1 star condiment counterpart.

The other 1-Star ideas in our test showcase some of the other ways concepts can run into trouble. PepsiCo Drinkfinity, a pod-style delivery system for soft drinks, was seen as too complex and fiddly. Flyte, an organic caffeinated beverage, received a general “nothing new here” shrug. Shower Beer – a beer designed to be drunk in the shower – was met with contempt for the clash of product and context. And the avocado gelato, served in an avocado? Best left to the hipsters: disgust based on flavor and texture dominated response.

The associations and preferences we as humans hold about food and drink are strong and often unwavering.  Brands need to tread with care when innovating in this space, as to not create products that stray too far from the familiar into unknown territory.  If the principles of Fluent Innovation stay at the forefront of the conversation during product development, fewer ideas will end up wasted, and more will enjoy profitable launches.

Find out more about our Innovation Testing methods here


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident, creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand testing tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.

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