There is a myth about where new ideas come from: A brilliant person toils alone until a proverbial lightbulb goes off in his or her head. The reality is that new ideas are almost always a matter of collaboration, the bringing together of the right group of people in a setting that encourages the cross-pollination of ideas from a diversity of skill sets and perspectives. Proof of this was on display at the latest Hormel Foods Innovation Summit held at Kansas State’s Olathe Innovation Campus. This retreat was a manifestation of a company-wide commitment to reimagining the future.
The event brought together a dynamic lineup of company leaders, food scientists and guest speakers who led interactive sessions on a wide range of topics, including the future of the food, shifts in consumer tastes, AI and sustainability, among others. Of the many takeaways: The speed of change in the food industry is only accelerating.
Heather Vossler, assistant vice president of insights, innovation and brand analytics, set the challenge at the outset of the event. “This is a small core innovation group and we want everybody to participate to make sure that we’re really bringing everything to life and activating on what we’re learning. We’re going to come up with better ideas and better products that we can put into the market.”
Speed of New Product Development
The gathering in Kansas was the first of its kind after the company launched its Brand Fuel initiative center of excellence. Kicked off last fall, Brand Fuel is part of the company’s new strategic operating model that consolidates innovation, consumer and shopper insights, and brand diagnostics. The ultimate goal is to accelerate the time between the recognition of a new consumer insight and the creation of a new product. This new leadership structure has enabled the company to be more agile, customer-centric and market-driven. In many ways, the goal of the Innovation Summit was to ensure that leaders from across the company were continuing the Brand Fuel momentum.
“It’s been less than 12 months in this new structure, and it’s incredible the amount of progress that we’ve made in such a short period of time,” said Brian McNabb, director of corporate development, during his address at the summit. “I’m personally really excited about what it will look like over the next one to two years as these things get built out. We’re just scratching the surface on the value we are going to create.”
Scott Aakre, group vice president and chief marketing officer, retail added, “The challenge of having a really thoughtfully developed pipeline is that there’s a lot of competing initiatives, and not all of them probably can be resourced at the same time. This means we have to go through and really understand which projects have the best opportunity in the near and long term.”
Kurt Lindsey, team lead, innovation and brand design at MegaMex Foods, also shared his experience dealing with a backlog of innovation ideas. “The team undergoes an annual review, considering factors such as feasibility, alignment with the brand and potential value. This process isn’t merely about hard metrics; intuition plays a critical role. The idea-evaluation process is a mix of art and science.”
Tapping Innovation from Around the World
The company’s success in global innovation was a key focus of the summit. Marianne Pollock, director of marketing at Hormel Foods International, shared insights on consumer preferences, cultural eating habits and emerging food trends across from the company’s businesses in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Indonesia. Each regional team has the autonomy to adapt and iterate based on local needs and preferences. This has enabled the creation of hundreds of new products, many of which have become inspirations for new offerings in the United States.
“We have a great opportunity to be curious about what’s going on in different parts of the world,” Pollock said at the summit. “I think all of our global brands will benefit if we learn from the trends we’re discovering in our international businesses.”
Artificial Intelligence and the risks and potentials of other new technologies were central to many of the discussions at the summit. There was particular interest in using new data tools to keep track of consumer insights.
According to Dave Anderko, insights lead at Hormel Foods, “We are learning how to use AI and machine learning to revamp our consumer and shopper insight approach. Instead of relying on massive surveys, we now analyze a large amount of data from sources like online reviews and social media. So, instead of a survey of over 2,000 people, we now have over 50,000 data points that will help us understand what people are looking for on a certain occasion or how they’ve used a certain product.”
Thinking Like Futurists
Attention Span Media, a long-time strategic partner of Hormel Foods, led a thought-provoking workshop designed to inspire the teams to adopt a futurist mindset and consider the “forces of change” outside the agriculture or food industry. The Hormel Foods innovators at the summit discussed three dozen topics including climate change, wearable health monitors, gene editing and food as medicine.
Attendees were challenged to discern which forces of change had the potential to exert the most significant influence over Hormel Foods in the coming decade and to assess the risks and challenges they might introduce to our current paradigms. The goal? To break free from conventional thinking and prompt participants to leverage these transformative forces to build future-proof strategies and products.
It’s everyone’s job to be an innovatorLisa Selk, senior vice president of retail, Brand Fuel
During the pandemic, teams at Hormel Foods, like at all companies, had to make do with video calls and other forms of electronic communication. While the company continued to innovate new products and processes during that time, the summit was a reminder that there is nothing like the energy of being in the same room to spark creative thinking. The dynamic collaboration that occurs when colleagues gather face-to-face is priceless. Steered by a passionate team, the Hormel Foods innovation journey is poised to continue its upward trajectory.
Lisa Selk, senior vice president of retail, Brand Fuel, left the group with a resounding mandate: “It’s everyone’s job to be an innovator,” encapsulating the shared commitment that will continue to propel Hormel Foods into the future.