BLOG: An Inferiority Complex


September 25, 2017

by Dr Caroline Withers

Breaking news last week dragged large food and beverage brands over hot coals for ‘cheating’ the consumer in specific markets with ‘inferior’ products, according to the European commission.

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 borders.

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.