Facing Increased Competition, Food Brands Turn to Big Data and AI.

Innovation within the various food and beverage categories is becoming more mandatory than ever, in the face of fierce competition. In an increasing number of cases, it’s not just national brands vs. national brands. It’s the aggressively-growing private label offerings from the retailers themselves that are of major concern.

Just this week, Target announced the upcoming launch of their newest private label food brand, Good and Gather, across their 1,800-plus locations next month. At launch, Good and Gather is expected to offer 650 products including fruits and salads, deli-fresh entrees, cheese, granola, chips and nutrition bars, just to name a few.

It’s just the latest move in an ongoing war between traditional food and beverage brands, and the in-house private label brands of retailers like Target, Kroger, Walmart, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and Aldi. According to a recent joint study by Retail Info System and Progressive Grocer, these products now make up a whopping 29% of all grocery sales.

And of course, this competition is not just between the national brands and the retailers, but between the private label brands themselves. According to retail consulting firm Daymon, more than half of consumers say they shop at a store specifically for its private label brand.

Needless to say, competition is through the roof. Complacency will most certainly spell disaster, with these private labels constantly launching innovative alternatives to practically any and every product under the sun. So where can brands turn to stay ahead?

The recipe for success, it turns out, may not just be in the kitchen, but in Big Data.

Conagra has recently started employing artificial intelligence to comb through massive amounts of Big Data in order to identify trends and bring innovative foods to market more quickly. The platform taps into data from social media channels, search engines and market research offer insights that lead to new products that will resonate with consumers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Conagra used the platform to introduce products such as Healthy Choice grain-free Power Bowls. The product capitalizes on several current trends, including the low-carb diets like the Ketogenic Diet, the specific popularity of low-carb cauliflower alternatives and the ultra-popular “food bowl” trend.

The platform was also used in the creation of Reddi-wip’s new Nitro Creamer. This capitalizes on the delicious (but exorbitantly-priced) nitro drink trend in coffee shops, and the relatively wide-open opportunity to make these types of premium nitro drinks available at home for a more affordable price.

Thanks to AI, Conagra was able to bring these many disparate data points together to identify these trends and bring products to market in the span of just a couple of months, shortening the product R&D cycle significantly while granting a level of certainty that the products would be well-received by the market.

But Conagra is far from being alone in using AI to generate new culinary creations. Spices giant McCormick has also been using AI to comb through massive amounts of data it has on consumers, taste palates and product attributes.

Researchers may have a bias toward certain sets of ingredients, but AI does not, which opens up the possibilities for new combinations considerably. And while previous generations of McCormick products underwent dozens or even hundreds of iterations before they could be brought to market, AI makes finding the right flavor much quicker. According to McCormick, the platform reduces the time it takes to develop a new product by 70%.

In a February article with Food Dive, McCormick Chief Science Officer Hamed Faridi said AI increased the company’s ability to innovate very “suddenly”. Beyond the product development, it also allows them to tap into e-commerce in new ways, as an unlimited shelf provides vast opportunities for customizing products for customers. He further added that in 3 years, it is quite possible all of the company’s new products will be created using AI.

AI-based food and beverage development is a rapidly growing sector, and a number of companies are working to help the manufacturers put solutions in place. Just a few of the competitors in this relatively new field are Gastrograph, Tastewise and Ai Palette – and this number is sure to grow as we hear more success stories like those of McCormick and Conagra.

The ability to very rapidly identify trends, develop new products and find undiscovered combinations changes the game in the battle for the basket. This gives manufacturers more opportunities to differentiate themselves at the shelf by offering a highly diverse selection innovative flavors, and in turn, gives consumers a greater number of high-quality choices to fit their personal tastes. Competing on a wider array of known-to-be-relevant products gives everyone more opportunities to win.

What do you think about using AI to drive food innovation? Do you think there is a risk of over-diversification? What other ways have you seen AI implemented successfully in the food and beverage industries? We’d love to hear what you think. Sound off on social media now and join the conversation.