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The best food ideas are chewed over in company, not alone

Nimble experimentation by small companies with their customers and even competitors brings new treats to your plate.
Piirroskuvassa on ruokaan liittyviä asioita, kuten ruokailuvälineitä, hymyilevät kasvot, omenanpuolikas ja mehiläisiä. Lisäksi mittalasi ja pipetti.
Illustration: Design Bites.

Kyrö Distillery, which has earned world renown with its award-winning gin, recently created new bitters through collaboration. The company started by supplying a select group of bartenders with a batch of herbals that they could use to mix cocktails to their liking.

These mixologists then conducted experiments during an open development phase. Distillery representatives and participating bartenders video conferenced at regular intervals, exchanging ideas and recipes.

For the final stage, the entire group gathered at the Isokyrö distillery to finalise the products during a three-day workshop. The end result was two products, a dark and a blonde rye bitters, the group was happy with.

The distillery example is a story of inventive and open product development. This is also how pulled oats, exotic vegan ice creams and new flavours of tea are being created. The stories behind Finnish hit products play a key role in the Design Bites research project, in which Maria Mikkonen and her team examine how collaborative development, co-creation, creates value for businesses. The project is ongoing at Aalto University’s Design Factory, a research and learning environment specialising in product development that employs multidisciplinary teams to tackle issues.

Mikkonen, who studied design management, has worked as a researcher in the Design Bites project since it began two years ago. The project monitors the growth of select small businesses in the food industry. 

‘Different kinds of experiments, brainstorming and a strong understanding of the consumer influence design thinking. We explore how startup entrepreneurs utilise these methods.’

Sharing with your competition

The special themes of Design Bites are co-creation and various experiments, the role of design and networks.

‘We’re reviewing what co-creation is like in food product companies. How successes came about and, on the other hand, what proved challenging for cooperation. At the same time, we’re studying whether working together is beneficial.’

Co-creation differs from traditional product development because it involves stakeholders that are typically shut out in the product development stage. Participants may include the company’s clients, and even its competitors. Feedback is especially valuable in the development phase.

In the best case, co-creation enables the emergence of substantial business activities using only light resources. Feedback on the product being developed is received quickly and the product can be nimbly developed further, removing the risk of spending lots of time on development only to discover that the product is not to the target group’s liking.

‘Many small companies engage in co-creation almost without noticing it. They might message a pal to say hey, we’ve considered such and such a package, how do you like it?’

So far, Mikkonen and her colleagues have examined about forty Finnish food industry companies. Participants include both widely-known firms like pulled oats maker Gold & Green as well as one-person microenterprises.

Coconut ice cream from Kontula

Co-creation can highlight issues that the developers did not think to consider in the beginning, but which are important to the clientele.

3 Friends is an ice cream maker from the Kontula district of Helsinki. When the firm decided to develop its first vegan ice cream, they got in touch with experts from the Vegan Society of Finland.

The manufacturing process uses coconut milk instead of dairy products. The Vegan Society informed the firm that the harvesting of coconuts can utilise unethical methods. Plantations in Southeast Asia in particular can use trained monkeys to harvest the coconuts. This method is controversial and it is likely that consumers would be interested in the origins of the raw materials used. Being aware of this enabled the company to take account of the issue in procurement and inform curious customers about the responsible harvesting of the coconuts used to make their ice cream.

Today, 3 Friends offers many vegan flavours. 

Unfiltered feedback

Maria Mikkonen says her researchers were surprised when they examined the operations of craft breweries. They discovered that an extremely helpful culture prevailed amongst the entrepreneurs. Tips and recipes are openly shared. Craft brewers didn’t view each other primarily as competitors, but more as sources of positive challenges.

Many Finnish products are already made by a diverse group of people. Universities, business accelerators, store chains and local communities are involved in development.

Mikkonen says many smaller companies have their own showrooms for tasting.

‘These are spaces where the company can try something new and where failure is allowed.’

A tea-making startup taking part in the study didn’t have its own tasting premises, so the company’s restaurant partner added some trial flavours to its menu. Feedback received from the restaurant’s customers indicated what flavours were especially interesting to tea drinkers.

Social media platforms are a good fit for co-creation. Companies have set up groups in which customers and the firm get to share their experiences.

Home growers of edible mushrooms, for example, can easily give each other advice or request assistance on a Facebook group. At the same time, a firm that sells home grow kits gains practical feedback, stories of personal experiences and improvement suggestions.

Cooperating with customers may also unearth cultural differences.

For example, you can’t market Finnish forest berry products globally using the world wild, as it doesn’t really mean anything in English. Similarly, the concept hand-picked, which is positive in Finland, can sound quite unhygienic in some places.

American treats

All of the studied companies have been Finnish up to now, but Design Bites has set its sights further.

‘We’re starting to study also the operating practices and product development of foreign firms and will be comparing them to domestic operators. We have just started conducting interviews at food sector
startups in Silicon Valley and Australia.’

Recently, interviews have been conducted among others in California,Australia and Estonia.

Design Bites conducts long-term studies, i.e., it monitors the manner in which the development of food product innovations changes over a timespan of several years.

‘We want to support Finnish companies with our research findings and help them develop their operating practices.’

The project is still admitting new small companies. Firms can participate in the study free of charge and all research findings are made generally available in various publications.

Read more: designfactory.aalto.fi/designbites

Text: Maija Vikman. 

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 26, April 2020.

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