Věra Jourová, responsible for justice and consumers at the
European commission, recently stated that food manufacturers are ‘manifest cheating’ by selling ‘inferior’ products in different markets, focusing on Eastern Europe in particular. Food and beverage companies
have responded, outlining that they develop different products for different
markets based on local tastes and preferences, hence leading to
variation between products under the same brand name and even packaging, across
Working at the coal face of fast-moving consumer goods
(FMCG) market research, we see a wide range of products from a wide range of
global markets. Products can vary
country to country for many reasons such as ingredient sources, variations in processing
equipment, governmental legislation, country climates, and the price consumers are
willing to pay as well as their liking and preferences.
Some of this variation is purely from a practical
perspective as different factories in different countries may use different
ingredient suppliers, sourcing locally. What is available in one area may be
different to other areas, even from the hardness of the water to the type of
sugar used, all of which can impact the characteristics of the final
product. Similarly, machinery and
processing involved in manufacturing may vary between regions, with some
factories having newer equipment than others, impacting the production process
just like variations between ovens!
Governmental pressures such as taxing the level of sugars in
products or reducing consumer salt intake can also directly impact the recipe
of different markets. To ensure food and
beverage companies adhere to the latest legislation whilst retaining consumer
enjoyment and acceptance of their products, product developers are continuously
investigating and tweaking product recipes, altering ingredients, processing
and even portion size to meet these demands.
Geographical location, whether in the heat of the desert,
the chill of the tundra or a temperate region in between can directly impact
the sensory delivery of a product. Consider a
well-loved food like chocolate - in warmer climes it's going to melt before it arrives at its destination, so chocolate experts adjust
the ingredients or production process to enable the product to
cope better in the climate.
But it's consumer acceptance that's crucial. Targeting consumer appreciation is
essential in both product performance and in price, with ingredients options
and processing techniques directly impacting the product itself and the cost of
manufacture. Food and beverage companies walk a fine line between developing
the ideal product for the tastes of a specific market, and the price they can
reasonably charge consumers to buy it. Product
developers aim to deliver the ideal, most loved product for consumers in each market
their food or drink is launched in; however, what is considered ‘ideal’ will
vary based on culture, experience and familiarity. For example, consumers in South
East Asia use sour, sweet, salty and hot flavours in many foods and dishes, therefore
they may consider the bitter dark chocolate, popular in Western Europe to be
unappetising in flavor and unfamiliar in texture, whilst consumers in Western Europe may struggle
to enjoy the strong spiciness and intense flavors of some South East Asian
curries. This doesn’t mean consumers
won’t eventually learn to like these characteristics, but different products
can struggle to gain traction in markets if rolled out with consistent
recipes. Thus food and beverage
companies need to adapt their formulations to local tastes and preferences.
The balance of ideal taste and cost is difficult to strike,
as regardless of whether the product is the best one in the market, if it is
too expensive consumers may be unable to afford it. At MMR we see this trade off in reality, with
our clients asking for guidance on the optimal formulation for the price point they can work with.
Regardless of the source of product variation, I personally
challenge the term ‘inferior’ in the European Commission’s statement. Taste
preferences are key for different markets, (our global offices are no different as
we continuously debate and argue over who makes the ‘best’ chocolates in the
world) and as long as the sensory characteristics align with the functional
needs and the conceptual cues offered by the brand for each specific market -and
delight consumers - no product is inferior.
Dr Caroline Withers is a Senior Consumer and Sensory Scientist (as well as heading up Innovation) at MMR.