Food innovation has always been driven by what consumers want or think they need. Just consider how many new food categories have been created over the past three decades to address consumer concerns with weight management, healthier eating, low carbs, high protein, gluten free diets, organic ingredients, no sugar added.
And the same dynamics exist in food service. Who could have imagined McDonald’s selling fresh salads 20 years ago?
For the most part, this innovation has been reactive and linear. Company R&D groups assess changing consumer trends before using broad-based consumer research to determine where they can fill gaps in the existing marketplace.
The digital era, however, has changed the game considerably when it comes to food innovation.
Increasingly, food manufacturers and food service companies look to a more active relationship with consumers to inform the innovation process. The ability to engage with consumers to develop new ideas has taken on greater importance with most organizations in the food industry.
In today’s post, we will look at the relationship between restaurants and consumers in the innovation process. How do restaurants gain feedback, and what can they do with the feedback to drive the innovation process?
Why Consumers Engage
There is a growing field of study around the concept of virtual consumer integration or VCI—the process by which producers (manufacturers, designers, restaurants) actively engage customers in a dialogue on new product ideas or improvements to existing products.
Active, involved and often passionate consumers expect much from companies, but, at the same time, can offer new, fresh ideas reflective of their knowledge and affinity for the products or services.
The internet offers more simplified ways to engage large numbers of anonymous consumers who would otherwise have little to no access to the innovation process.
“The novelty of virtual consumer integration,” says Johann Füller of the University of Innsbruck, “is that, compared to traditional online marketing research, consumers are not only asked about their opinions, wants and needs, but also to contribute their problem solving skills.
But why do consumers engage in the innovation process? What’s in it for them? Füller notes that there are two layers of consumer motivation:
- Intrinsic motivation: Individuals intrinsically motivated may consider their virtual contribution to new product development as enjoyable, and therefore perceive it as rewarding instead of pure effort.
- Extrinsic motivation: Appropriate rewards either animate already participating consumers to make even better contributions, or attract additional consumers interested in the topic.
The point is that consumers typically enjoy engaging with companies, especially those looking for ideas or product improvements.
How Do Restaurants Engage Consumers?
So, let’s say you run a restaurant that, for the most part, has been successful over the years. But you’ve maintained the same menu and you’re starting to see a little erosion in your business. How can you get valuable feedback from your customers? What can you do to get ideas for product improvements?
There are a number of ways to engage your customers. Let’s look at a few:
- Check online review sites daily: By checking Yelp or Urban Spoon, you can learn a lot about what customers think about your restaurant and what’s happening in your competitive set.
- Reward customers for taking an in-store survey: Many restaurants ask customers to take a survey at home for a chance to win something free. Instead, why not create a mobile-friendly survey that your patrons can take while they wait for their food. Offer an instant incentive of a free dessert or appetizer. The greater the incentive, the more time your customer will take to give you feedback and ideas.
- Facebook polls and email surveys: If you’ve built your Facebook presence and/or have a large, active email database, tap into your community for ideas and insights. It’s a simple process that doesn’t cost anything, other than an appropriate incentive.
One Additional Level of Engagement
You’ve engaged your customers and, through the process, have identified some new concepts for your restaurant. How do you take your customer engagement to the final stage?
Here are a few ideas:
- Focus groups: If you have new products for tasting or ideas to experiment with, focus groups are a great way to get true feedback from your best customers. To be sure, this approach can be a little pricey because you need to hire a professional moderator. But the investment may be well worth it because you’ll gain valuable insights about your new product offerings
- In-restaurant sampling: People like to try new things, so you should always be on the floor offering samples of new menu ideas. Again, it’s a great way to get direct, honest opinions from your best customers.
- Tasting events: These can be by invitation only and focus on specific areas of innovation. Perhaps a new wine bar or craft beer selection that you’re thinking about adding to your restaurant. Special events are a great way to enlist ambassadors to get the word out on your behalf.
Make sure to engage your customers on many different levels to ensure that your food innovation efforts pay long-term dividends.