Every March, brands converge by the tens of thousands at a tradeshow called Natural Products Expo West or “Expo”. The convention is a sensory overload of bite-sized extravagance that exceeds even the most voracious of appetites. There is something for everyone—obscure fruit and vegetable seedbutters, plant-based meats, meat-based snacks, protein infused water, fermented condiments, probiotics, prebiotics, heirloom superfoods, the list goes on so long that I risk parody. The show is in Anaheim adjacent to Disneyland—yet the scores of sample devouring humans dwarf the neighboring resort’s average daily attendance.
Effectively every brand that you can find in any aisle of your favorite grocer exhibits at Expo, vying for the attention of that store’s purchaser. This is where you go to get on the shelf and to meet the partners that might help you become the next household name. Hundreds of natural products upstarts launch at the show. Thousands of veterans, large and small, debut the last products of the previous year’s research and development. Expo is the perfect place to launch because it is a dedicated forum for meeting buyers, greeting the press, impressing investors, stoking your peers, and outshining your competition.
Despite all this, ReGrained did not launch our newest innovation at Expo this year. Instead, we flipped the script and sought data with which to refine and perfect our offering.
Apparently, this was unusual, but the idea intuitively made sense. As I have lamented with peers often, as emerging brands we frequently execute our product development in a silo. We would love to focus-group our prototypes with sensory panels and marketing message tests, but doing so is prohibitively expensive. We must move quickly…and with that oft-romanticized scrappiness.
Instead of a sensory panel, for example, we might deploy an army of interns to a park or grocery parking lot on a sunny Sunday armed with samples and a clipboard. In theory, it wasn’t much of a stretch to leverage a booth at Expo West as a focus group. Assuming we could pull this off, we would walk away from the show with more than data. This novel democratization of process conceivably could earn communal emotional investment in our success.
Once we decided to present the new ReGrained line as a prototype, how to do it put an entirely new kind of strategic pressure on the show. Practical questions like “how might we make the surveys exciting, not intrusive?” emerged. Would the hustle and bustle of Expo be willing to slow down to engage with the exercise? Would we get enough to provide a statistically significant sample size? Can we physically pull this off in our tiny 10’x10’ booth? Emotional questions such as “what if everyone hates it?” also demanded consideration.
Despite the many ways we could hypothesize our experiment backfiring, we were confident in 3 things: 1) While not perfectly representative of the population at large, our sample group of industry insiders would include tastemakers and trendsetters. 2) Before expending the capital to bring the product to market, we’d have the opportunity to optimize. 3) When we do eventually launch the product, we’d have built-in champions anticipating the fruits of their contributions.
We designed our survey to capture an array of data. Quantitatively, participants would be asked to rate each flavors Taste, Texture, Appearance, and Purchase Intent on a 1-5 scale. For those willing to be even more generous with their attention, there would be space provided for qualitative feedback. We even asked for suggestions on the products name.
Conscious of maintaining the flow of booth traffic, we presented the survey on double-sided recycled paper attached to an arsenal of clipboards and were very pleased with the returns.
When we returned from the show, we entered the raw data into a spreadsheet where we could organize the results for analysis (thanks interns!). As an executive team, our process was to first parse through the data individually and then meet up to analyze collectively.
To our relief, the results were decidedly favorable. For example, with some variance between SKUs, we received a 3.9/5 average review on taste and with 4/5 on average on texture. The outlying metric was somewhat lower scores on Shape/Appearance (3.7/5). We fought the urge to rationalize this (The product was presented in bulk-style bins, without branded packaging, what impact did this have? Do ANY extruded snacks appear attractive?) and instead turned to the qualitative comments for clues.
In the comments, we found a theme of complementing our creative flavors but also asking for “more.” From a technical perspective, we knew from our trials that adding “more” seasoning would not equate to more flavor. We also found a trend of commenters who loved the crunch but that the bite was bit big. Seeing the forest for the trees, we realized that if we tweaked the shape to be smaller and thinner, this would give the seasonings relatively more surface area. The form factor would become more like a toothsome chip instead of a hearty biscuit. We’re now executing these trials, and aim to officially launch the line this summer.
With our experiment behind us, I would 100% do it again at next year’s Expo West. However, our attempt to crowdsource the name of the line fell flat. So, dear reader, hit us up in the comments!
In conclusion, gathering data and putting it through the filter of analysis enables the entrepreneur to validate and challenge intuition. This was simply a novel means of gathering that data. As a result, we are now more confident in our footing ahead than ever before—a foreign sensation in the life of an entrepreneur that I wouldn’t mind getting to know better.