Customers will respond if you have passion and creativity for product, says Mark Price.
At the Waitrose board’s regular lunchtime presentation, our product development team served us with two different burgers.
First we had a new caramelised onion and mozzarella burger from Muddy Boots. This is the company run by the delightful Miranda and Roland Ballard who have set out to show that burgers made from top quality, fully traceable meat are a nutritious and convenient choice - and they’re starting to see the success they deserve. Having started small, we’re now stocking their range in 34 shops.
Then we moved on to the Heston from Waitrose Ultimate Beefburger, the latest popular food to be transformed into something extraordinary by our food ambassador’s touch of genius.
This tasty start to the week illustrated the pivotal role that innovation plays in our industry. Nobody wrote a specification for either product. They are born out of enthusiasm, commitment and creativity.
Talking in these terms could sound indulgent to those for whom times are hard at the moment. I’d be the last to play down the worries of people who’ve lost their jobs, fear redundancy or are just struggling to buy the basics.
But you only have to look at the royal wedding celebrations to be reminded that the British respond enthusiastically to opportunities to cast off austerity gloom. Occasions that merit street parties may be few and far between but, as food retailers, we can - through presenting people with exciting new choices - give reasons to get together to enjoy food and drink.
So our job is not only to respond to what customers tell us they want but to inspire them with things they hadn’t thought of or, if they had, wouldn’t have imagined were possible. One of the requirements for success in this is to create an atmosphere and culture where ideas and innovation are welcomed and can thrive.
Back in the early 1990s, I remember an observation from the then head of Sony that no customer had ever said: “You know what, I’d love to have a device that means I can listen to music while I’m walking along or sitting on a train.” But the Walkman opened up new, welcome entertainment options.
Few of our innovations are likely to have the revolutionary impact of the Walkman, but we can inspire people and get them talking as well as trying something new.
Who would have thought that people would be visiting auction websites to buy a pudding with an orange in the middle, that a bag with ready-weighed ingredients for a Christmas cake (albeit for a recipe from the nation’s most-loved cook) would sell out - or that the media would be quite so engaged by a sandwich where lettuce substitutes for bread?
And passion can lead to new ways of innovating such as crowdsourcing where customers act as developers and reviewers in bringing products to life. Last month we launched Seriously Rose-Infused Chocolate dessert — the first time that Waitrose has sold a food product designed by a customer and championed by the members of MyWaitrose.
The point is that however we innovate, new products must be true to our brand values and identity. Customers see gimmicks for what they are, but if we can inspire them - or they inspire us and each other - with products that hit the right notes we’ll be enriching their experience and driving our business.