Be the Job: How Meow Mix Found Success by Innovating Around a Winning Insight

Be the Job: How Meow Mix Found Success by Innovating Around a Winning Insight

Innovations today take a lot more than a little luck to succeed. With more than 17,000 new products launched from 2008-2012, the competition in consumer packaged goods (CPG) is fierce. So approaching innovation with a game plan—and most importantly, sticking to it—is essential to building a winning product.

Consumers hire products to perform services, or “jobs,” in their lives. And just like a job you work, these product jobs have hiring and firing criteria. These jobs include a clear spec for perfect fulfillment. For the innovation team at Big Heart Pet Brands (formerly Del Monte Foods before the company sold its consumer food portfolio in February 2014), the job was clear: Take the best of wet and dry cat food that was satisfying for the pets and owners. And they met the spec with Meow Mix’s Tender Centers, one of the 14 Breakthrough Innovation Award winners Nielsen named in 2014.

Landing the Job

Every innovation starts with identifying the need in consumers’ lives, the demand driven insight that forms the basis for each job. “We found that cat parents are on an endless quest to form connections with their cats. Cats are famously independent, which is part of their attraction, but those who love them are constantly seeking connection,” explained Courtney Moore, vice president, Strategy and Insights at Big Heart. It turns out that the feeding ritual is a very important emotional experience for owners. “They are keenly aware of the pet response. When it comes to the food they love, cats can be extremely expressive.”

Previous products didn’t meet the needs of both consumers and cats. “Herein lies the tension,” expanded Geoff Tanner, vice president, Marketing, “cats love the taste of wet food, but their parents overwhelmingly prefer feeding dry food—no mess, no fuss, no smell. Dry is fast, clean, and easy. You can leave it out for the day, no problem. So the tension, the tradeoff—and the opportunity—were all crystal clear. Hence the ‘impossible question’, which really framed and guided our innovation: how can we deliver the best of both wet and dry in one format?”

“We realized that the historic wet-dry separation was an efficient convenience for manufacturers and retailers that was not particularly important to consumers. In fact, what consumers wanted was the best of both worlds rather than a tradeoff between the two,” Moore elaborated.

The Inside Job

Once the team at Big Heart identified the job opportunity in consumers and pets’ lives, the really hard work began. It was one thing to have the insight. It was another to test and refine the concept, which came back with very strong consumer support. But these hurdles were modest compared to the technical challenge of developing a product with a crunchy outside and moist, meaty center.

In our work with Breakthrough Winners, this is the primary point of separation: where the Winners faithfully adhere to the full measure of the demand driven insight—the job—throughout the development process, while the majority of “might have beens” yield to the powerful pressure of established organizational capabilities to conform. Time pressure, resource constraints, compensation incentives, existing production assets, brand equities, distribution channels and accumulated expertise can all exert extreme pressure to bend insights to their established ways. Resisting, staying true to the core insight, is the hard work of demand driven development, the uncelebrated heavy lifting that separates Breakthrough from mediocre.

“Rapid prototyping is an idea much more associated with the software and tech industries than with CPG,” Tanner reflected. “Over the past few years, we have incorporated the principles of design thinking into our innovation approach: a model we call Disciplined Entrepreneurship. In the case of Tender Centers, we knew the level of technical challenge to produce a dual texture product, at scale, at an acceptable cost would require many iterations and rapid prototyping: testing, failing, learning, and improving.”

“In the end,” Tanner joked, “things went according to expectations. Early prototypes were far from the mark—just as expected, but the goal wasn’t perfection at that stage, it was learning and rapid improvement. This work was neither quick nor easy, but we got there.”

Not a Nine-to-Five Job

One of the really great things about an insight so firmly rooted in unmet consumer demand is that when you develop the offering that nails the job, it’s much easier to develop simple, effective and compelling consumer communication.

“The proposition to consumers is really straightforward. We had such a clear understanding of the tradeoff that existed in cat lovers’ lives that our launch strategy spoke directly to that circumstance and need. It was simple and very effective.”

“Technically, there’s a handoff from innovation to the brand group,” Carrie Schliemann, Business Director on Meow Mix, explained, “but it’s a very integrated transition. When it comes to package design, advertising copy, and in-market activities, we want to fully execute on the driving insight and customer promise.”

“We not only developed compelling consumer communication,” Schliemann elaborated, “we deployed a fully integrated marketing campaign focused on the ‘best of both worlds’ crunchy and meaty benefits that the product provides.”

A Job Well Done

Nailing a job reshapes categories. Breakthrough Innovation winners generate an average 45% of sales from category expansion. With Tender Centers, Big Hearts found a product to break down the pet food category.

“In resolving the tradeoffs between wet and dry, we thought we could generate a breakthrough innovation that would update our Meow Mix brand and be highly incremental to the business,” Tanner explained.

And Big Heart’s investment in solving these types of jobs in consumers’ lives has paid off. In the past five years, only three pet food launches have sold more than $100 million in cumulative first two years’ sales. All three have come from Big Heart Pet Brands and two of them have been Breakthrough Innovation Winners. “Four years ago, we made a strategic bet to win with innovation. Our goal was for our consumers and customers to see us as the innovators in the category,” stated Tanner. Based on results, Big Heart Brands is delivering on the pledge: multiple breakthrough winners and a stunning organizational transformation rooted in a strong commitment to innovation.