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4 Food Brands that Are Continuously Innovating — And What We Can Learn From Them

There are among us, a few elusive brands that are so on it, we wonder “how do they do it?” and “how many hours a week do you think their employees work?” Through continuous innovation, brands like Oreo, Taco Bell, and the likes create ongoing streams of press coverage, cult-like followings of consumers that try every new thing, and brands that seems culturally relevant in an everlasting way. In this article, we’re looking at the approach some of these brands take, and why it works for them.


Approach to innovation: Hit hard, hit fast, stay cool.

In 2009, Oreo’s approach to marketing took a left turn. In an article by Fast Company, Mary Beth West notes that before then, the brand was -- for lack of a better term - narcissistic. It talked about itself. The transformation from self-absorbed cookie to life of the party was not quick switch (full story here). Today, Oreo has taken a step ahead of the competition with some of the most creative, wacky, and innovative campaigns and products available in the snack aisle. At SXSW, with help from MAYA Design, the brand partnered with Twitter to creating a Trending/Vending machine that would spit out custom cookies based on trending topics. In 2018, new flavors included Kettle Corn and Strawberry Shortcake. Rumor has it that 2019 brings Easter Egg Oreos and “Most Stuf” (carrot cake flavor has already been released this year).

This constant rigamarole of releasing new flavors might seem fruitless (and exhausting), but it creates a novelty effect. According to David Just, a behavioral economist at Cornell University, these flavors aren’t made for long-term consumption. Consumers have come to expect wacky flavors from Oreo, and die hard fans will buy and try every one. It keeps Oreo at the forefront of your mind, even if traditional is still your favorite, and gives younger consumers the interactive experience they so crave (especially when the flavors are crowdsourced).

Oreo up for the Oreo challenge? Try every flavor of cookie listed on their Wikipedia entry. We’d also be remiss to not send you to their Instagram.


Approach to innovation: Always be listening.

We know what you thought when you heard about Taco Bell’s last menu release (at the time of this article, Beefy Burritos with actual chips inside). You thought, “Who comes up with this stuff?”

The short answer: You. Or, consumers, that is. In an article by QSR Magazine, Melissa Friebe, VP of Taco Bell’s Insights Lab, says the company’s innovations are driven by consumer demand. The crunch wrap was a solution to making Taco Bell more portable. Even the Doritos Locos Taco was launched as a way to make a simple taco more flavorful.

The brand’s personality is the guacamole on top. Fast Company recognized the brand in 2015 for nailing the millennial voice, but it’s not just about being trendy -- the brand knows who they are, and leans into it.  

As Greg Creed -- Chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, parent company to Taco Bell - says, “Sometimes the biggest innovation is not Earth shattering.”


Approach to innovation: Just ask.

Similar to Oreo, Lays has developed a reputation for constantly releasing new flavors. In 2018, the brand released 8 flavors inspired by regional cuisine across America, including Fried Pickles with Ranch and New England Lobster Roll. Lays’ annual Do Us A Flavor campaign has inspired many chip flavors -- and many marketers, looking to replicate the ingenious application of crowdsourcing. In 2014, there was 14.4 million fan submissions for a new flavor, and purchase intent increased by 1 percent.

Crowdsourcing isn’t the whole story though. On Lays’ website, they note that “Increased demand and the need to compete in an ever-changing marketplace has, in some ways, made us reimagine how we talk about our snacks and bring them to you.” Outside of crowdsourcing, their innovation team combines consumer trends with food science to create new products that live up to snackers’ dreams. Chips are often an impulse buy -- something that likely bodes well for out-of-the-box flavors.


Approach to innovation: Quality over quantity.

With only 474 locations, and roughly 4,000 products, Trader Joe’s lives and breathes the “quality over quantity” motto. To put this into perspective: typical grocery stores carry over 50,000 products, and Kroger has 3,028 locations. Yet, Trader Joe’s makes more money per square foot than its competitors (twice as much at Whole Foods!).

Their secret is putting equal amounts of love into every item on their shelves as much as the next. Their private label accounts for over 80 percent of their SKUs. Given limited floor space, every product has to go thorough testing. To add a product to the lineup, it will have to replace something else, which means it has to be better, taste better, and sell better. Seasonality lends a hand in this game, giving the retailer natural transition times between products.

I go to Trader Joe’s because they carry products I can’t get anywhere else. Their private label products are unique and different. And with seasonal releases, I’m never quite sure what I’ll find. When I visit Trader Joe’s, my eyes are peeled for some shiny new Easter Egg on the shelf. It makes grocery shopping more of a game and less of a chore.

A side effect of seasonal releases is a constant stream of press: “Trader Joe’s New Pumpkin Products Release today!” (read about why pumpkin is still a thing).


No one said creating new products was a contest but regardless, we have a few brands that are getting an honorable mention award today. These are companies that innovating all the time, but in a tl;dr world, we had to edit out:

  • Amazon / Whole Foods - (or as we sometimes call it, “Wholemazon”) for making the food and retail world sit on the edge of their seats, and continuously seeking new product releases
  • Starbucks - for replacing straws (instead of just ditching them) and always giving us something new and seasonal to sip on
  • Chobani - for regular innovation, and most notably, their newest product “Dairy Free Chobani
  • Kroger - for using data to serve their customers
  • Noosa - for constantly rolling out new, seasonal, and regional flavors (plus, Colorado local represent!)

Who did we miss? What brands would you nominate into the hall of innovation fame?

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For media inquiries please email fwt@room214.com

Caitlin Sherwood



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