Most of us know the dark days of product development. The CEO, sales manager and marketing director just called an urgent meeting with the product innovation/development team. The topic is to introduce and review the best, most ingenious new product ever launched. Unfortunately for all concerned, that product had been already developed by one of your major competitors, not you.

This meeting is for information gathering, opportunity discussions and defensive strategy creation. Why didn’t you think of that concept? Did our market research show a need for this product? One good example was the reduced-calorie bun, now commonly known as sandwich or deli thins. Or how about the sensation caused when another baker made a kid-friendly version of the product?

These meetings are never fun, but for those companies who do not achieve “first to market” in a given product category, such gatherings are often an all-too-common event. It is time to rally the troops and determine corporate strategy to combat the potential sales damage to our products and brands.


Most baking and snack industry marketing and product development personnel realize that when you are the first to market, you are rewarded with market share. With mould-breaking new products such as 100-Cal packs or sandwich thins, you own the market until your competitors or private label producers can knock off the product for their own market introduction. Once your competitor’s product reaches the market — with product and ingredient legend now public — your timeline to match or reverse-engineer that new product gets much shorter than typical for the development process.

So what is reverse engineering? The dictionary definition is “to disassemble or analyze in detail in order to discover concepts involved in manufacture.” Another way to describe this process is de-formulation.

One of my favorite reverse-engineering stories involves my daughter, Leah, and her roommate, Chelsea. While shopping at a Washington, DC, supermarket, they sampled a flavorful and appealing creamy dip on a cracker. Chelsea fell in love with this dip and decided to make the purchase. Once she got it home, she realized she had paid $5.99 for an 8-oz package — steak would have been cheaper per pound. Outraged by the price, Chelsea vowed never to purchase the dip again, but she kept coming back to how good it would be when entertaining guests.

A business trip to the nation’s capital provided the perfect opportunity for Leah to showcase what her Mom did for a living, working in R&D and new product development. “When Mom arrives, she can taste it,” Leah said. “With the help of the ingredient legend, she can help you figure out how to make it yourself.” Chelsea was extremely skeptical that the outcome would be as good as the original but was willing to give it a chance.

Upon arrival in DC and with the package of dip in hand, I began to scribble a formulation for the great-tasting, overpriced dip. I would taste the dip, review the ingredient legend, scribble down approximate percentages and repeat. At Kansas State University where I went to college, we would have called this a “dry lab” because I did not have the ingredients in front of me to actually put together the dip as I penned on paper. I did asterisk a couple of ingredients that could move up or down in percentages if it wasn’t exactly to her liking. Ultimately, I handed Chelsea the recipe for her new favorite dip.

A couple of weeks later, I received a very gratifying phone call from Leah: “Chelsea says thank you for your help on the dip recipe. It tastes great! But she still can’t believe you know how to do that.”

Well, for those of us in the world of product development, that is what we do, professionally and sometimes for personal benefit, too.

After years of product development, this type of reverse engineering is common. Veterans of the product development process use this method frequently. Reverse engineering is a fun challenge and somewhat of a game to see how close to the new product formulation you can get with the paper exercise.


Now it is time to go to the bench and bake-test your formulation. At this point, marketing is pleased and sometimes amazed at how close you get to the prototype on the first try, thanks to the talents of the development staff. Enjoy that moment when marketing is happy with your progress because the process is about to get more complex.

You must remind yourself — and marketing — about the 80:20 rule. Eighty percent of the product development process takes 20% of the time. The final 20% of the development process will take 80% of the time. It is the time needed to drill down and fine-tune the details.

More fiber, fewer calories or fortification with calcium and vitamin D may be claims marketing is considering for the front of the package. Then the texture, color, flavor and size all come into play. Once you reach a certain point in development, it will be time to talk to consumers.

The consumers in the focus group will likely be loyal purchasers of the new product you are working to reverse-engineer. What would they change or add to the product to make it better? What product attributes would help pull the consumer to try a new brand? (Other than price, of course. Price is typically the first answer given by the consumer.) Health benefits or topics like simplified ingredient legends, named in the focus group, will typically follow consumer trends. If you are lucky, you may get some insight on changing trends before they go mainstream. This insight may allow you to complete the reverse-engineering process and then work to one-up your competition. Always a plus when you are on the defense!


After reverse-engineering the product in the research lab, now you must go to operations and into plant trials. Somehow, Murphy’s Law always seems to show up at plant trials. Maybe a new ingredient did not arrive in time, or increased sales demand did not permit the scheduled testing time, or there was a power failure — all events outside of your control.

Over the years, you learn to plan for the worst and hope for the best. This helps reduce frustration and tempers when the timeline falls apart. Then it’s on to regulatory, legal, purchasing, packaging and IT to ensure all of the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed to meet the ASAP timeline for product launch.

Reverse engineering typically assists when your development team is called upon to play defense. But many of us would prefer to be first to market with the best, most ingenious new product presented in the meeting rooms of our competitors.

And remember, as the saying goes, offense wins games, and defense wins championships. The question arises, Does that apply to the baking and snack industry the same way it applies to football?