Blog: Dean BestInnovation means tension

Dean Best | 5 September 2007

Innovation is key to the success of any food manufacturing and retail business. It’s an issue that must consume many of your working hours.

Big or small, it pays to be ahead of the game when it comes to NPD and investment into niche segments or emerging markets.

And that rings true whether you’re a small player or whether you’re a company the size of Unilever, one of Europe’s top five food producers by revenue. The Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, home to brands like Magnum ice cream and Knorr soup, has been criticised in recent years for its unwieldy business structure. Management by country and by region has left Unilever open to accusations that its profit margins have been lower than its industry peers – and that the company has been too slow in tapping into ever evolving consumer demand.

However, as just-food found out yesterday (4 September), Unilever is working hard to get innovation front of mind across the business. The company is constantly launching new products on the market to meet consumer demand for healthier products.

Nevertheless, as you all know, the perennial problem is how to manage innovation across your business. Do you draw up innovation projects centrally or do you operate more locally to meet the needs of consumers in individual markets? The danger of operating locally is adding cost to your business. The danger of centralisation is not being close enough to react to evolving consumer demand.

For Unilever, there is a need to “find the right balance”, according to Emmo Meijer, senior vice president for food R&D at the company. And, in any case, that tension, Meijer says, is a good thing.

“There’s always tension in the innovation process,” Meijer told just-food at Unilever’s food R&D HQ in Vlaardingen, just outside the Dutch port of Rotterdam. There’s nothing wrong with that – it keeps people sharp. If there’s no tension in the innovation process, then you’re doing something wrong.”

There’ll be more on our interview with Unilever’s Meijer in the days ahead but we’re interested to know how you manage your innovation “process”. What challenges are you facing right now?


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