Cooking up a storm

Jenna Cusworth-Bolger, head of user research at Seymourpowell, looks at how designers are changing the way we eat.

Sponsored by Seymourpowell


It’s no secret that we’ve become a nation of foodies. Enticing new food and drink experiences litter the pages of our lifestyle magazines, making consumers ever more demanding.

Brands are increasingly eager to stay ahead of shifting tastes with new product launches, but it can be a struggle as gearing up production can take months, or often years, of planning.

At Seymourpowell, we’ve seen manufacturers looking for inspiration beyond their development kitchens and marketing departments and turning to design. Despite being famed for their transportation and product designs, our team often work with a different raw material – food. Whether creating the future of beer, chocolate, coffee, orange juice or crackers, it’s the same talented people turning their hand to food who were, a day earlier, working on a TV or a train.

We’ve found food innovation requires the same raw creativity as any other product design, but with a few tweaks to the recipe.

Step one: gathering the right ingredients

The first phase of the design process – foresight – is particularly important in food and drink innovation. This ensures new ideas are centred on needs, future-focused and globally relevant.

There are three strands of activity typically needed. The first is trend research.

The adage goes “you can’t research the future”. However, we believe that by observing patterns and sensing the cultural atmosphere, it is possible to shine a light on the future. This is crucial, because food and drink manufacturers can take years to get from the point of concept to a functioning production line, and the capital expenditure of a new line needs a compelling business case.

We must therefore be future-focused with our ideas – designing concepts for five to seven years’ time and not just next year’s big bet. If we only ever design for the short term, the mid and long-term propositions never happen, as their groundwork has to begin yesterday. It is vital to work from the future backwards.

To inspire, test and validate our trend research, we regularly conduct interviews with industry thought leaders. Our constantly growing network of international food writers, development chefs, food designers and food futurologists provides us with a rich source of information.

The second activity is immersion with leading-edge consumers. Science-fiction writer William Gibson quipped: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” and this is something we live by when we approach user research in the context of food and drink innovation.

So much market research focuses only on talking to a brand’s ‘typical’ consumer, but this will only ever tell you about the present and the past. We believe in talking to the world’s early adopters – people living more ‘progressive’ lifestyles. This isn’t just people with an edgy haircut, it’s those leading a lifestyle and living a mindset that sets them apart from the norm, demonstrating needs and desires that are yet to come into the mainstream.

1) Recording consumers’ behaviour , 2) Combining insight and trends to inspire a creative design workshop, 3) Observing a Mumbai market, 4) Designers quickly make ideas tangible to get buy-in

We charm our way into their neighbourhoods, homes, kitchens and bedrooms, immersing ourselves in their lives and temporarily placing ourselves into the future. Our design-trained researchers use the principles of ethnography – seeing people in context and understanding as much from observation as from listening.

Over the past year we’ve travelled to the four corners of the globe and met with paleo-dieters, urban farmers, supper club hosts and experimental chefs, delighting in the stories they’ve shared about their world of food.

That leads to the third insight activity, cultural observation. Often the brands we work for need future products that appeal in many different markets. This means understanding the food culture in various regions and what’s shaping local changes in behaviour.

When our researchers travel to different cities they do so with open eyes and mouths. They head to the latest pop-up restaurants and shops, explore the local markets and stores and spot food trends as they happen on the ground.

We always travel with an empty suitcase that’s then filled with product and packaging examples to inspire our designers.

Step two: using the right tools

We need to root innovation in the realities of a business’s technological and commercial capabilities. This means understanding the technology limitations of current production lines as well as the technology possibilities on the horizon in other businesses, or in development in university research labs.

Our designers work with research and development (R&D) within and beyond the category to map the landscape of available production processes, ingredients and packaging possibilities.

Step three: turning up the heat

Seymourpowell’s creative events are a melting pot where all the project ingredients are fused together to form ideas. We bring to life the insights from our trends and user research in the form of ‘innovation territories’, with inspiring video, photographs and product examples.

These spaces of rich opportunity are the inspiration for groups of designers to work with the client’s global teams to create compelling new ideas. Each idea is captured beautifully in words and sketches. The last creative event for a leading beverage and snack client resulted in more
than 200 individual product ideas.

Step four: let them eat cake

While this volume of ideas is fantastic, the raw thinking is made more useful once the essence is distilled and aligned with R&D and brand ambitions. The next critical step is to explore which ideas will deliver profit and growth, in turn helping businesses understand which technologies and capital expenditure to back. Our team brings the ideas to life, both visually and tangibly through models, for qualitative and quantitative consumer research. 

Working this way enables businesses to develop concepts rooted in trend and insights and then validate them, with a sense of likely returns, so that they can move forward and invest with confidence.

Every food and drink business relies on innovation to drive growth, but creating true breakthrough innovation relies on an inspired look into the future and a hefty helping of creativity from a skilled design team. 

Jenna Cusworth-Bolger
Head of user research

327 Lillie Road
London SW6 7NR

T: 020 7381 6433

Twitter: @seymourpowell



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