Every company has a list of “must haves” when it comes to developing a new product. The list is typically specific to the demographic that purchases the brand you are expanding or building. The list we are going to work with includes these five: taste, convenience, portability, reasonable price and taste. Yes, I repeated “taste” because it’s a must-have that’s important not only to product development but also — even more so — to repeat sales.
The task at hand was a new cupcake variety. It could be a seasonal item, an “in and out” or a permanent addition to a line of snack-packed cupcakes.
As was my past experience working with Hostess cupcakes, we took many different ideations to the senior management team. Possible options were quickly whittled down to a limited number. The one the team liked best used white cupcake batter — you know, the traditional wedding cake style with white icing.
The topping, however, was what made this cupcake a “wow” from the taste standpoint. It featured a random-size crumble of chocolate sandwich cookie pieces, similar to America’s favorite cookie. It was amazing how something so simple could be so amazingly good. So, it passed the first and most important test. The taste was amazing!
As to convenience and portability, cupcakes of this sort are typically a hand-held, easy-to-eat snack item, but this cupcake had a fatal flaw. The chocolate sandwich cookie topping was very messy because the cookie crumbles were placed on top of the icing. When you took a bite of the cupcake, some of the topping would always end up in your lap or on your desk. Also, many snack items are often eaten while traveling in a car, so creating a messy eating occasion was a total deal breaker.
We set off to determine if there was another way to deliver the same eating experience but in a different form. Thus, different iterations began to take shape. The chocolate cookie became part of the cake batter in one version. Another variation mixed the cookie pieces into the icing.
At the end of the night, we learned that the chocolate cookie inclusions, either in the cake or the icing, did not deliver the same eating experience as having the cookie pieces on the top of the icing. Focus group participants described the cookie inclusions in a variety of unappealing adjectives: mushy, moist, dirty and just plain gross. But there was still the issue of the mess created when you ate the cupcake with the cookie crumbles on the top.
Enter marketing, asking the next question and working to determine how to give consumers what they wanted while ensuring the cupcake would be easy to eat.
Oh, and don’t forget that the new item also had to be easy to make in the bakeries. Installing new equipment, like a topper to add the cookie pieces after the icing applicator, was not ideal either. We were always working to make new products with limited-to-no capital outlay for equipment. This is not an easy task when you are expected to be creative and innovative — but that is a subject for another column. Then there’s the sanitation challenge of the excess cookie pieces that could get on the conveyor belt and create a huge mess. Such conditions would likely require special scheduling and/or sanitation, which were never a good thing either.
The reason this particular cupcake project sticks in my mind is where we ended up vs. where we started. The final result was a yellow cupcake with chocolate icing. It was almost a “duh” moment when the variety and flavor were finalized. The yellow/chocolate combination became a customer favorite, right behind the chocolate/chocolate original.
To get to the final prototype, the process of eliminating and refining, followed by validation from the consumer focus groups, had to take place. In the end, it seemed so obvious. But the process had to happen to ensure we were giving consumers what they wanted, that it met their expectations and that they would purchase it a second time.
It is the job of marketing to get the first sale. It is the job of R&D to make sure the flavor, texture and eating experience deliver so that the consumer will want to purchase it gain.
Sometimes innovation is much simpler than we give it credit for. And who reading this today thought bottled water was a silly idea?