Trimming the new-product development cycle by 18 months

Startups are driving the pace of change in just about every sector of the U.S. economy—and that means retailers and CPG manufacturers need to create new products and brands in record time as well.

 

Some companies are doing exactly that. When Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat came up with a popular new spin on plant-based proteins, the national names Hormel, Nestlé, Kroger and Trader Joe’s answered back in a matter of months rather than years.

 

Fast-changing tech and cultural trends will continue to spur nimble entrepreneurship. To gain the startup-like ability to pivot and make quick decisions, companies and their brand agency partners  may need to on-board new approaches to developing products and brands.

 

The Agile methodology could fit the bill nicely. A group of software innovators conceived of the approach back in 2001 during a three-day retreat at a ski-resort in Snowbird, Utah. While software development may seem vastly different from brand strategy and design, CBX has found that Agile works extremely well in this context. In some cases, it has allowed us to trim the development cycle for our CPG clients by up to 18 months.

 

We take a hybrid approach that blends elements of both Agile and Design Thinking and was shaped by the specific needs of CPG companies. Below are a few examples of how that hybrid approach— branded as Leap by CBX—can ramp up the efficiency and creativity of the process without sacrificing the quality of the final product.

 

Thinking differently about collaboration

When the creators of Agile met in Snowbird, they knew that software-development needed to change. Back then, the process was marred by linear thinking and exhaustive incrementalism—plodding, step-by-step development that too often involved obsessive planning and book-length documentation. Not only was the status-quo frustratingly slow; it also made people feel more like robots than engaged and respected team members.

 

The prevailing approach among CPG companies and brand agencies is nowhere near that linear and restrictive. However, many Agile principles can move the development cycle forward in impressive ways. The key is a shared mindset that emphasizes:

 

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and
  • responses to change versus following a plan.

 

Rethinking existing methodologies can be part of the process. Brand agencies, for example, tend to make heavy use of Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote to whip up visually stunning decks. However, it is possible to overuse this ability. In the Leap methodology, it’s understood that “ta-da moments” often are most appropriate for the end of the process as opposed to when ideas are taking shape. Consider alternating deck-making and formal presentations with more collaborative work sessions, like white-board brainstorming and real-time group discussions.

 

While cutting back on decks can save a surprising amount of time, the real point is this emphasis on creativity through engagement and collaboration. In addition, Leap teams know to include customers on this journey from the beginning, as opposed to “pitching” them during an unveiling of the final product at the end of the cycle.

 

Sprouting brands faster  

Creative startups with authentic, local approaches are winning the hearts and minds of Millennial and Gen Z consumers, in particular. It’s part of the reason national CPG companies are launching more incubators and venture funds: They see an acute need to drive innovation and ramp up their time to market.

 

Hormel’s Happy Little Plants is a great example of an expedited development cycle: From concept to shelf, the plant-based protein brand took just three months to develop. That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

 

To make it happen, CBX worked with the team to create a process, leveraging the Agile mindset, to get the job done. The basic idea is to ask dedicated teams to tackle specific challenges associated with the new product or brand. You give them their own workspaces, protect them from unnecessary distractions and grant them the freedom to plan a path forward.

 

Generally, a Leap project will be comprised of five or six two-week “sprints” culminating in the final reveal of the deliverables. Sprints are effective because they intensify everyone’s focus. You change your mindset and say, “We’ve got two weeks. Now let’s see what we can do.” The higher intensity level brings out the team’s problem-solving skills and fosters a collaborative spirit. People stay focused, work faster and act decisively. For this to happen, though, they need support. In an Agile process, you give your teams everything they need, empower them to make decisions and encourage them to see missteps as meaningful datapoints, not failures.

 

This approach breaks right through roadblocks that otherwise could have stalled the project.

 

Nimbler research methods

In any development process, it’s critically important to seek consumer feedback. But when the timeframe is tight, you may need to take a scrappier approach to research. Conventionally, a consumer research project can take two weeks to recruit, a week to field, another two weeks to produce the report and then a final week to align all of the learning and next steps. But when you don’t have six weeks to spend, it’s possible to do research in short bursts that give you the answers you need. That could be everything from rapidly executed custom research, to connecting with consumers in real time wherever they can be found—on the street, on Zoom or in new-media channels like Reddit, Discord and TikTok.

 

A Leap process will incorporate pillars that will be familiar to anyone who has studied Design Thinking: There’s a strong emphasis on developing consumer empathy and maintaining an ability to iterate and pivot based on what you learn about consumer acceptance.

 

Pivoting can come at a variety of different places in the process, even after an initial market test. The priority is not to preserve what you’ve done so far—it’s to serve the client and the consumer.

 

Mindset Matters

First and foremost, ramping up your teams’ creativity and productivity is all about a cultural shift. You need management and executive support so that everyone feels comfortable taking risks and being open to pivots and new iterations.

 

That’s important, because in today’s marketplace the faster pace of CPG is undeniable. From compostable packaging, to functional foods, to all things local and authentic, the needs and priorities of American consumers are changing. Fortunately, CPG companies are already responding effectively. While the terminology and alternative structures in Leap may take some getting used to, there’s no need to be intimidated by the approach. Training is highly accessible. Given our experience in shifting the brand and product development cycle into higher gear, we think it’s definitely worth a look.

 

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Stacy Hintermeister is vp, marketing and growth in the Minneapolis office of CBX, an independent agency specializing in brand strategy and design services, including branding, innovation, packaging and retail design; shintermeister@cbx.com

 

 

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