Slicing onionsOne of the more entrenched paradigms in food innovation remains the concept of the “need state.” A need state is essentially a benefit linked to some kind of behavioral moment that researchers can locate in surveys and then put into classificatory framework. It continues to be a common tool for a) marketing strategy/brand positioning development, b) analyzing where a food portfolio competes for share of consumers’ stomachs and c) where it could go next in the landscape of consumer behavior. Need state analytics are sometimes hard to distinguish from occasion-based analytics of consumer behavior (e.g., breakfast, dinner), although the latter often also operate at a higher level of strategic analytics and decision making. 

What began as an aid to marketing efforts has become a default analytic used in many new product development efforts within marketing organizations. In working with clients on need state analyses for many years, though, we’ve found that these frameworks are much less well-suited to guiding new product development in the current market situation. 

Why is this? 

  1. OccasionsNeed state analytics are vague constructs that can’t guarantee actionable levers to drive growth in specific categories. While traditional need state analytics are useful for understanding the true competitive set in which your categories compete (i.e., other categories you don’t even compete in today) or for determining categories to move, or buy one’s way, into, it is a level of analysis that contributes little to directly understanding the tangible combinations of on-trend attributes driving sustainable growth in your current operating categories. The most unhelpful approach in this regard is to do need state analytics at the daypart level (e.g., snacks, meals, breakfast). This very high-level work can’t guarantee that the dominant need states uncovered will be culturally actionable in your operating categories, leading to dead ends or to relatively weak ideas for ‘tag-along’ marketing efforts. Many times we have seen clients invest in overly broad need state frameworks, only to find that the relevant need states are simply not actionable in the company’s current portfolio of brands and product categories (although they often are for a competitor’s portfolio!). The challenge with most need state paradigms is that they are based on consumer statements or mere guesses from research suppliers not well-informed about the complexities of food culture at the category level. And the resulting need states do not indicate how to tap them through the key symbolism inherent to food design in specific categories. A vague need state like “optimal hydration” or “permissible indulgence” does little to help a company figure what constitutes a differentiated offering in their operating categories. It merely points to a vague outcome to which something can then be designed. But how? Often, consumer research is then undertaken to ‘land’ the need state into a set of category-specific marketing levers suitable for concept design and creation. This is a very inefficient route to new product platforms or new incremental marketing efforts, especially for today’s highly competitive packaged food marketplace, where speed to market is increasingly the key tactical advantage in line-extension innovation. 
  2. calloutNeed states are too often mass market constructs. The most dangerous component of need state analytics for successful new product development efforts is the continued construction and validation of them within Gen Pop survey samples. One consumer’s mindless munching may not be the same as another person’s, in part because there may be intersecting needs that require differentiated design guardrails. How broad cultural ‘needs’ exhibit themselves in food culture differs critically along lines of both social class and niche lifestyle orientations, and sometimes both at once. Given that need state research is usually done with ordinary Gen Pop consumers or category users with affinity to the company’s brand, the result is that rather bland, mass market concepts get created that are not very differentiated and which will ultimately require expensive marketing and promotional efforts to sustain velocity at the shelf. Mass market survey sampling literally drowns out the voice of key category trendsetters (and the entrepreneurs who serve them), who are inventing new ways to serve established needs (e.g., satiety) or inventing obscure needs that one day could go mainstream. 
  3. Need state analytics are biased to promotion, not product design. The very poetics of need states emerged from the nexus of research suppliers/consumer insights/marketing executives trying to solve communication and positioning problems for consumer brands. As such, need states analysis has been repurposed awkwardly for another of the 4 Ps, when, in reality, a more adaptive analytic solution is really necessary to drive product innovation and product development efforts in a fast-changing, highly competitive food marketplace. Using vague benefit language to then create concepts, without grounded information on the actual product-attribute trends operating adjacent to, and within, your categories, is a very inefficient and ultimately costly approach to driving even the most basic of innovation efforts. We recommend clients reflect on the dangerous fallacy of using an analytic designed to optimize marketing/brand positioning efforts for a purpose that requires a much more direct, empirical connection to possible business demand for a new product offering. 
  4. Need states are too far removed from your customers’ perspective on innovation. Need states are ultimately a consumer-level analysis far removed from how your retail customer views and manages their categories. Need states are a great supporting piece of information in trade marketing and sales but, in and of themselves, distract marketing organizations responsible for leading innovation initiatives from a focus on innovating something unique and important for the category at specific classes of retail. Need states analysis was born in a prior era when CPG brands could directly influence the consumer and utilize the retailer as a mere distribution point. In today’s food culture, the retailer not only drives the value chain but also curates categories for consumers who expect retailers to offer a mix of both established and innovative brands and to lead the charge on emerging trends. The growth rates of emerging new premium brands (those often not owned by large CPG companies) exhibited across the grocery landscape have created a situation where retailers’ view of the category is much broader than most CPG sales teams’ view. Need states analytics may help drive a marketing campaign aimed at consumers, but it does not help companies bolster their understanding of where categories are evolving on shelves they do not fully dominate. 

Winning in today’s food marketplace is about designing food experiences that either a) extend your core business into known behavioral gaps or b) or extend it upmarket. Need states are ultimately biased toward promotional decisions and strategy, not product design in a market where highly nuanced category niches are driving all the growth. 

While the inherent poetics of need state paradigms gives marketing organizations and senior management clear internal language to rally around, it cannot ultimately replace a more grounded, structured view of food trends at the product-attribute level inside strategic categories of interest.

A solution? trend id

Conduct a detailed analysis of which design attributes (sensory and symbolic) are driving growth at the category level through detailed analysis of scanner data and then surface the need states or drivers behind what is working at the edges of the marketplace or in small niches (i.e., channels or consumer segments). We’ve found that tomorrow’s innovations are already for sale; the challenge is measuring the performance of emerging category attributes early enough and figuring out how to deploy them in your brand portfolio appropriately.

For more information on our thinking and services we offer to improve innovation efficiency, please contact Shelley Balanko, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Business Development at: