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Cultural innovation: How global brands remain fast-moving and relevant

28th Oct 2022

Cultural innovation: The FMCG and F&B business case

Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and the food & beverage (F&B) sectors anchor themselves in consumption habits and culture. They are “fast moving” not only in their consumption cycle but also in redefining what they are about and how they remain relevant in a context of ever-evolving societies, cultures and trends. 

Traditional segmentation methods don’t give brands a granular understanding of behaviour drivers and their constant evolution. This is when cultural innovation comes into play – only the brands who master culture with a capital “C” stand out and lead the right conversations thanks to their ability to adapt. Think of culture in its many dimensions: national, regional, communities and subcultures all at once. 

In this article, we highlight why cultural intelligence should always be the driving force behind global innovations in the FMCG and F&B sector.

Consumers don’t consume tech

“Why do brands innovate?” is one of the first questions we should ask ourselves. Innovation is anchored in the need to keep up with changing markets and consumer needs, a focus that technology can sometimes overshadow. Many innovations are pushed to market for the sake of innovating and putting forward cutting-edge technology. 

To Simon Senek’s point, the answer should be in the why (consumer needs and behaviours) rather than the how (technological innovation).  This is illustrated by the number of innovations in the FMCG industry that fail or never see the light of day. Some of the biggest innovation failures have come from a range of well established legacy brands to new up starts looking to burst into the market. 

Innovation for innovation’s sake adds no value to a brand, market or consumer. This is why understanding consumer needs and behaviours is vital when looking at the innovation process, to add real value and worth to a product or brand.

‘All great innovation solutions start from expertly framing the consumer job to be done, clearly understanding their circumstance of struggle or aspirations going beyond the universal truth and digging deep for those pain points. Failure to apply that due diligence only results in delivering solutions that are short-lived, lack that consumer centricity or “stickiness” and ultimately end up in the innovation cemetery’ Gerardo Mazzeo – Chief Executive Officer and Founder at Innovation Kitchen, former Global Innovation Director at Nestlé.

Traditional research methods don’t always reveal key cultural drivers for innovation

While focus groups and quantitative surveys are great at picking up on macro trends, they don’t always focus on the cultural element sitting right in front of them. Panels of consumers rarely spend time explaining how that product anchors itself in their cultural habits. This can be due to the group’s own cultural biases, not asking themselves these questions and not drilling into the cultural habits enough to uncover useful insights, or simply to a standardised approach to international focus groups that lets those valuable nuggets slip through. 

“What consumers say about what they do is vastly different than why they actually do what they do – we as humans aren’t as in tune with our motivations as we think we are! Cultural and anthropological observation can help shed some light on some of the mystery of shopper behaviour.”  Amy Steinmetz– Managing Director at The Otherly.

Did you know that in China most households have two washing machines, one for delicates (baby clothes and underwear) and another for day to day clothing? This is what Massimo de Zordo discovered a few years ago leading ethnography interviews following months of focus groups discussing the norms and habits around laundry in China, as he was looking to develop a targeted innovation for this market.

It was only until they reached the ethnographic stage (home visits) of their research that they discovered a vital consumption habit that set a new direction to their current innovation process; most of the houses had two functioning washing machines. This insight had not been revealed in the previous months of focus groups, due to this cultural norm being so embedded in the day to day life of the consumer – they just didn’t think it was worth mentioning.

Uncovering this key consumption habit made the laundry brand reevaluate their innovation and product process not only to create a dedicated innovation for this market, but also reviewing basic product information on packages. For example, the quantity of additives needed in a smaller washing machine vs a bigger one, as well adjusting the size of the packaging accordingly. 

“Many years ago I had the chance to have a chat with one of the greatest marketing gurus, Martin Lindstrom. He used to say you have to live with the consumer, go into their houses, spend time with them, see how they live, behave, use your products, and you will come up with great ideas”– Massimo de Zordo – Marketing director for domestic appliances at Phillips

Listen to what culture tells you

Listening to and understanding the nuances within each audience’s culture or subculture is essential, this goes beyond the standard focus group model. Drilling beneath the surface of an audience with a cross-cultural audit provides the granular insight that will help increase the success rate of a product innovation. 

Nestle’s Kit Kat is a prime example of this. At its inception, it was a layered wafer biscuit covered in milk chocolate until the brand thought to appeal to the Japanese people’s liking for different flavours. Many years later, there are over 200 varieties of Kit Kat on sale in Japan, in flavours as diverse as Blueberry, Bubblegum and Banana. 34% of Japanese teenagers told pollsters that KitKat was their favourite good-luck charm, second only to an omamori blessed by a Shinto priest.


Unlocking cultures and subcultures: going beyond national and international dimensions

Cultures should no longer be defined by nationality or geographic location. Audiences and subcultures have become more diverse and fragmented than ever before, whilst remaining inter-connected and constantly evolving.

Unlocking the knowledge and cultural intelligence that’s within an audience is vital for an effective product development or innovation process. Gaining granular insight into what drives and motivates these categories and subcategories will help determine what criteria shapes an innovation.

“There are four elements for every culture… They have sets of norms, sets of values, language, and symbols. So, how do you talk to them? What are you trying to convey? What are you trying to tap into? That’s the key thing to understand.”  Juan Boido, Senior Brand Manager at Eggo – Kellogg’s Group 

Juan Boido successfully led a cross-cultural product innovation campaign for PopTarts (Kellogg’s), in North America based around the Mexican cultural holiday ‘Dia De Muertos’. The aim of the campaign was to remain authentic to Kellogg’s brand values and show that every culture and everyone has a seat at the Kellogg’s table. 

With this innovation, Kellogg’s treated the product innovation process as an exercise of empathy and understanding of the Mexican community, not just in North America but in Mexico. Gaining valuable granular insights on what norms, values, language and symbols were appropriate and respectful to the Mexican community and the ‘Dia De Muertos’ traditions.

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Juan joined our CEO Mélanie Chevalier at The Global Innovation Forum to discuss the importance of cross-cultural intelligence when innovating new products or packaging. Their full discussion can be found here.

A successful innovation of any kind cannot exist without a deep understanding of an audience and in turn the culture you are innovating for. Diving deeper into the granular insights provided by a cultural audit will always unearth more valuable and tangible data than more traditional research methods. 

Utilising cultural data correctly at the beginning of the innovation process will provide a clear path for the decisions around the innovation, there are also various experts that can help and guide you through this process when required.

If you’d like to learn more about how culture can work for you visit the Creative Culture insights page or watch the video below to hear directly from some of our clients.

Global Innovation Showreel | Creative Culture

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