Commentary: Is the restaurant industry overusing 'innovation?'

33,528 (no relationship to mountain elevation) is the number of times "innovation" was mentioned in quarterly and annual business reports last year alone according to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article written by Leslie Kwoh titled "You Call That Innovation?"

May 23, 2012. Last month I blogged "How do you recognize 'true' innovation, and who practices it?" I noted that a leading hamburger chain recently received an industry "innovation award" for their retooled hamburger sandwich, and noted that this was a glaring example of how most people are clueless about what true innovation is – and the rush to label new food products as "innovative."

The WSJ article also noted that 43 percent of 260 executives said their company has a "chief" innovation officer or similar role in place. There have also been 255 books published in the last 90 days with "innovation" in the title. That sounds like great opportunistic marketing, if only the marketing departments of food companies were quite as good. The WSJ also reported that 28 percent of business schools use "innovation," "innovative" or "innovate" in mission statements.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term innovation can have two meanings: 1) the introduction of something new, and 2) a new idea, method, or device: novelty.

Why do so many companies use the word "innovation" in their executive titles, on R&D Centers, and in mission statements? Scott Berkun, author of the 2007 book "The Myths of Innovation," stated in the WSJ article that the term innovation "is a chameleon-like word to hide the lack of substance" – a viewpoint that I totally endorse. He further states that the word appeals to large companies because it has connotations of being "agile" and "cool," like start-ups and entrepreneurs.

So, how do food companies fare with the use of the innovation term? To Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. CEO Randy Papadellis, it is turning an overlooked commodity, such as left-over cranberry skins, into a consumer snack like Craisins – Oh really? In previous years, companies viewed this project as "value-added,"and a way to reduce overall commodity costs. I am also curious if Ocean Spray formed an "Innovation Team" to spearhead this effort. It certainly doesn't pass the test of "radical innovation" that I have previously written about.

Proctor & Gamble and Campbell Soup have also been sucked into the innovation craziness, because they mentioned innovation 22 and 18 times in their most recent annual report. Let's consider which of the following items should be considered "innovative" – A new soup? A new vegetable? A new noodle? A new chicken flavor? I can't even think of 18 new innovative ingredients or items that could be formulated into new soup products.

I also feel sorry for my Johnson & Wales culinary students who have studied true innovation in my new product development classes. They are graduating with abounding creativity, and a solid understand of true innovations processes. They will need to be strong, and able to withstand established marketing departments that want to play it safe with low risk line extension products.

Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC's development team of "Popcorn Chicken", now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi.

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