The bigger picture

In my role as a food brand mentor, I meet numerous businesses at different stages of their brand journey, but in all instances I encourage them to look at every aspect of their business concept – not just where it is today but their longer term vision.

Typically, this includes all the aspects that can help them shape their idea: brand theory, accelerated culture, trends, sector, gap analysis, audience, proposition, positioning, packaging, presentation, pricing and routes to market, proposition – leading to concept optimisation. Having what seems to be a unique idea is a fantastic start, but my approach, which I’ve developed over many years can determine the true potential of an idea by exploring the opportunities for concept optimisation and future proofing.

Today, no product sector is devoid of established products and whilst in the last Millennium there were numerous brands for whom there was no competition, that is no longer the case with every product having to compete to attract consumers, all of whom have a myriad of choice. To be successful in the 21st century, products and brands have to deliver benefits and an experience which is superior to existing products – only by doing so will your product be viewed as attractive by consumers and persuade retailers to delist an existing product and replace it with yours.

And if you’re selling online, whilst the challenge of securing retail space doesn’t apply, none the less your product and brand has to create a relationship with potential customers whereby they value your idea over and above existing brands and as a consequence, change their purchasing behaviour.

1. Opportunity and feasibility

If your product appears to be unique, you may think that because nothing exists in the market that no one has ever thought of it. Whilst this might be the case, it may be that others had explored the idea before you and found that whilst there was a gap in the market, there wasn’t a market in the gap.

However, consumer needs and market opportunities are always changing so you may want to seek expert help early on to help you assess its potential.  Before you do so, undertake internet searches, not just in your home country but worldwide – see if you can find any evidence of a similar or identical product having been launched previously and assess whether they are on sale today.

2. Demand

Get friends and family to sample your products, even though your commercial product may differ. You need to assess quickly and at zero cost whether it is worth progressing further. And ask them to give you truthful rather than kind feedback – not just telling you what they think you want to hear.

3. Research

Make online searches to find relevant market data for your idea.  If you live in the UK, then the British Library in London provides access to a huge raft of information free of charge whereas purchasing the same data can cost thousands of pounds.  

Attend trade shows to increase your knowledge of the food and drink sector and to see the latest ideas. There are a swathe of food and drink events in most countries and not only will you increase your understanding of the sector by attending them, but they’re great for meeting useful contacts too. And don’t be concerned about sharing your idea with others because you’re worried about confidentiality and copycat activity.  In my experience this doesn’t happen and you are more likely to gain from sharing rather than suffer.  However, if you want to put some protection in place, share the minimum of information until you have a signed confidentiality document in place.


4. Pricing and margins

This is the most important stage of all and can ensure that a business is profitable and sustainable from the outset. Create a spreadsheet of all your manufacturing costs and all costs associated with storage and distribution. These form your cost of goods. Then add all your overheads, ensuring that you include at least a minimum wage for every hour you spend on producing and selling your products.  This is vital and often early-stage businesses either forget this entirely or think that they cannot charge their time because of pricing issues. If this is the case, then either your business idea is flawed or your costs need further attention. Or it may be that your proposition and positioning is wrong.  

With a few exceptions, retail products are either high volume and low price or high price and low volume. Don’t try to be a low volume, low price product because it won’t work. So when looking at existing sector products ensure you are benchmarking against high quality, artisan products – not mass market brands. And do make sure that you don’t make a very common mistake of confusing margin and mark-up – they are not two different expressions for the same thing. Margin is the percentage of the retail selling price which represents the difference between the price a retailer buys it and sells it. It is not the percentage by which you need to multiply your selling price to deliver a margin to the retailer – this is the mark-up.

5. Proof of concept

Next step is to test your initial concept with paying customers. You don’t need final packaging or branding to do this but you do need to comply with trading standards requirements re labelling and in particular, allergens.  Local markets, food festivals and farmer’s markets are perfect for this. You’ll get product feedback (particularly if you’re sampling) and you’ll be able to talk to customers about price too.  But a word of warning on this one.  Selling products at these events invariably sees customers willing to pay a higher price than they will as part of their weekly shop and with you describing your products and presenting samples, their overall reaction and your sales levels need to be viewed as optimistic. So you need to do your homework on likely price points in retail.


6. Minimum viable product

Now you’re ready to take your learnings from your sales activity and use this to help you fully define your product, brand and packaging.  Competitor analysis and market mapping are key at this stage, as is being confident about your proposed selling price vs your competitors. And this is the time to pad out your initial business plan with robust numbers for scaling up.

You need to be clear about your gross margin targets and what retailers will expect across the whole range of independent, speciality, wholesale, food service and mainstream retail channels.  And if launching online, you need to ensure that you take advantage of retailer margins within your selling price.  This is really important because retailers will expect you to be comparatively more expensive online –  and you don’t want to discover that you don’t have adequate margin to give them a better price.

7. Plan

You will need to make sure you have the funds required to develop your idea and then to take it to market. You’ll need to develop a detailed cost model ensuring that you’ve included all costs associated with developing and manufacturing your product ensuring that you’ve included all ingredients costs, manufacturing costs, transport and logistics costs, a profit for you and margin for wholesales and/or retailers if you’re not selling online.

By now, you should have a roust business plan including P&L and cashflow forecasts for at least 24 months. Irrespective of whether you’re selling online or in retail you will need funds for marketing support to create awareness and drive demand – sales won’t happen if potential customers aren’t aware of you. And my rule of thumb for working capital purposes is that you will need funds equivalent to three months turnover if you’re selling through retail and 2 months if selling online.

8. Identify expert partners

Start your search for the expert help you’ll need for the process of making your idea a reality.  At this stage you may want to start approaching companies to develop product samples or manufacturers but it’s far better to look towards brand innovation businesses that can help you fully scope your project and support you through their broader expertise.

You may also well need help in relation to approved ingredients and all the various compliance issues surrounding food and drink manufacturing, including the very important aspect of food safety and accurate and legal packaging labelling. There may be other things to consider before you start this stage of work, and businesses such as these are best placed to help and guide you through all the various stages. Creating a robust product brief in tandem with a brand strategy and market opportunity evaluation are proven to lead to success. And it’s key to have someone outside your business with the knowledge and expertise to question and challenge your thinking and strategy as well as to provide guidance and know-how.

9. Pre-production

You’ll need initial samples which you may be able to prepare yourself or you may need specialist resource but again, an innovation business can help you determine the best way forward and crucially they’ll make sure that you’re including all elements into your preliminary cost model. Ideally, your samples should be made using commercial ingredients which are produced much in the same way, albeit at a very small volume, as your commercial products will be and using the commercial production equipment. If this isn’t done then there is a danger that shelf life tests for example will not provide an accurate indication of product durability.

Getting all the components in place takes time and planning and most manufacturing partners won’t source or store ingredients on your behalf so you may need help with ingredient procurement and just in time supply chain management. With samples produced, lab tests need to be undertaken to ensure product stability and achievement of the required shelf life, ensuring that discolouration, separation or flavour changes don’t occur during the usable life of your product. This is most challenging for chilled and ambient products but there are a number of things that can be done to maximise longevity during the product development stage.

10. Manufacturing

With your background work complete, now is the time to start to explore potential manufacturing partners. A brand innovation business will be best placed to help you identity the most appropriate suppliers with expertise of similar products and with the ability to pack into your desired packaging format – whether that be jars, bottles, trays, pouches, cartons, bags or indeed a new and novel packaging format – particularly with the increasingly important focus on recyclability and minimisation of environmental impact.

A visit to potential suppliers is the next step and at this point, accurate manufacturing costs and minimum order levels can be determined which can be incorporated into your plan to provide greater detail on your manufacturing cost and selling price. Service level agreements and contracts also need to be considered at this stage in the process.

11. Brand design and packaging

Your brand innovation partner can now use all their background work to design and present appropriate and practical structural packaging solutions and brand ideas. It may be that you have some ideas for your brand name but they will be best placed to assess these, not only in terms of strength of a brand name but also with regard to the legislative aspects of registered trademarks.

It’s really important to ensure that any proposed brand name doesn’t conflict with an existing trademark before commitment is made to costly packaging design and production. Failure to undertake this very important stage can have serious, future consequences. At worst this could lead to an existing brand asking for you to cease trading and withdraw your products until a resolution is reached.  And there is potential of course that a resolution may not be reached, leaving you faced with the challenge of starting your branding and packaging work again with wasted packaging and product on your hands and a disruption to your sales.  

Many brand innovation businesses include brand name creation as part of their services and if you commission this work from them they will undertake additional strategic work at the start of the project to provide a foundation for their name generation work. Typically, this part of the process may take up to a month depending on whether you need a UK, European or global brand name.  

Either way, they will present brand identity options for your given name or options for created names for your consideration and choice. With a brand name chosen, it’s then on to packaging design and many designers will present brand options in-situ on pack so that you can see your brand as it will appear on your product. Many will also provide physical mock-ups at this stage too and present visuals of your product on shelf in store. Both are very valuable in helping you properly assess how your end product will look and standout against competing brands.

12. Pre-production samples

Now it’s time to bring all the components together: product, brand design and physical packaging so that you can create a number of samples which are an accurate replication of what will be produced once you place orders with your chosen manufacturer. This stage will include creating your product artwork including ingredients, allergens, nutritional information, weight, usage instructions and storage. Your chosen manufacturers will work with you at this stage to prepare a limited number of pre-production samples and your designer should be able to source packaging so that identical samples to end product can be produced. At this point, you should submit samples for shelf-life testing as well as product safety.

This is the ideal time to build in consumer testing, giving you an opportunity to gauge reaction to your product, branding and packaging so that any significant feedback can be taken on board before design finalisation. With product prototypes finalised, all your cost elements known and your background research guiding your retail price, you can now present your end product to potential retail stockists and undertake photography for your website and marketing purposes.

13. Create your marketing strategy

Consider how you are going to promote your brand at launch. It is likely that social media will be a key part of this and to be effective, you should consider ads as organic traffic is unlikely to generate adequate. Other things to consider are: sampling, markets, pop-ups, intro-offers, local retailers.

14. Place manufacturing order

With your website ready and/or retail listings secured and with everything in place to launch your business, then packaging/labels and ingredients procurement and manufacturing can all be put in hand.

15. Pre-activate marketing

A couple of weeks before you go live with your website is the ideal time to activate your launch marketing.  But don’t expect instant success, it takes time to build awareness and to convert this awareness into sales and you should be constantly monitoring and modifying your activity as you learn which aspects are being most effective.

I get a tremendous buzz from seeing the numerous businesses I’ve advised achieve the commercial success they deserve and if you feel I can help you take your idea from food concept to reality, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

For more information about how I help my clients launch new products take a look at Food Brand Strategist.

If you’d like to explore how I can help you, ping me an email so we can schedule a call.

Call: +44 (0) 207 205 2998 or email today for an initial chat.

Last Updated on 23/04/2023 by Eddie Stableford

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