The Problem with CPG Innovation

As consumers, we don’t often consider what it takes for our favorite products to become part of our life. Consumer packaged goods (CPG) includes products consumers regularly use and replace – including things like groceries, clothing, and household products. But the journey to becoming a successful product on shelves can be a long, arduous one. Beyond making it past the company gates, a new product has to land with consumers to cement its place in the market.

The key to success? Truly innovative products that put consumer needs at the center.

Innovative products solve a problem, make something better, or simply excite the customer. A truly innovative product will seamlessly fulfill consumer needs, fit into their day, and keep them coming back for more. But that is no easy task for many CPG companies.  


Why is it difficult for CPG companies to innovate?

Many would assume CPG companies are some of the best innovators given their large marketing and R&D budgets along with their extensive industry experience.

However, depending on the size of the company, there are many barriers to creating innovative products. First, CPG companies are risk adverse. They usually have a large portfolio of products to consider when adding to a line, and it’s very expensive to dive into something new. 

Companies want to see how a trend maintains before jumping in. Some companies don’t even consider following a new trend until an innovative competitor starts to hurt their business. By then, it could be too late for them to enter and make a big splash


The second barrier to innovation is CPG companies are not very agile.  When the company feels safe to start innovating, the project can move through R&D, marketing, corporate strategy, sales, and possibly even international teams before coming to fruition as a product. Despite this massive collaborative effort, getting an innovative product to shelves can take 18 months or more.  


A year and a half after the peak of a trend, consumers have already given their loyalty to the original innovators, or the trend has passed. That’s why we see so many CPG companies innovate through acquisition. When the window of time has closed, large CPG companies can try to purchase those small, innovative brands to add to their portfolio.


It’s unrealistic for CPG companies to simply acquire any and all small innovators that chip away at market share. So what can these companies do to keep launching innovative products that consumers love?


How to Successfully Innovate in CPG

The equation is clear. Risk aversion + extended timelines = out of touch products. So how do we solve for innovative products consumers love?

With rich, forward-looking data.

Innovations fail when they’re not backed by the right insights. What is flying off shelves today will not be as relevant in 18 months. We know CPG product development timelines will stay the same, so the insights that back these innovation decisions need to be focused on the future. With data that identifies the trends before they take off, CPG companies have the assurance to launch the next big thing. Though any new product carries risk, having the data to back forward-looking decisions allows CPG companies to innovate confidently.



Innovation Case Study: Quakers’ Oat Beverage

However, knowing a trend is going to happen doesn’t guarantee a product will succeed. For example,  PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats experienced lackluster innovation in the oat milk space. In November 2019, Food Navigator reported PepsiCo was discontinuing their oat beverage after less than a year on shelves.


Ultimately, it came down to understanding what early-adopters to oat milk were looking for. Quaker put their time and effort into creating a healthy formulation that was lower in sugar and higher in fiber than its competitors. Unfortunately, consumers weren’t looking for a healthy option; they were looking for taste. The “heart-healthy” angle did not land with early-adopters, and Quaker had lost the oak milk game. 


It is surprising the 143-year old oats brand could not compete. Grocery stores around the country were stocking oat milk by summer 2020 and it was becoming commonplace in big coffee chains. However, brands like Oatly, Silk, and Califia Farms were in-market for a number of years before. 

For the small, agile brands, these products propelled them into the mainstream. For large brands like Silk, owned by multinational food company Danone, they relied on existing brand equity to seamlessly introduce their extension to consumers.