In our monthly “SKU View” series, Food Entrepreneur is tapping the expertise of mentors at SKU, a consumer products accelerator based in Austin, Texas, to deliver timely insights on issues that affect early-stage food and beverage brands.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — A food scientist with a passion for health and wellness, Lauren Jans leads research and development at SmartSweets, a brand of reduced-sugar candy. Previously she was a product and process developer at Mondelez International, Inc.

“In the world of food, innovation has to be value-added, scalable and accessible,” she said. “Your product should give the consumer something they’re missing today. That could be better taste, better nutrition, more convenient format, or a number of other value-adds.”

In a recent interview, she shed light on how early-stage brands may achieve successful innovation while navigating current industrywide challenges.

Food Entrepreneur: How do you define innovation?

Lauren Jans: In a simple sentence, I think innovation is about identifying a gap and using creativity to solve it in a way that adds value. It’s taking an idea, having the patience and persistence to iterate over and over, and figuring out how to commercialize it with excellence.

What are your keys to successful innovation?

Ms. Jans: Ultimately, your innovation should give consumers something they can’t get anywhere else. Innovation also needs to be scalable. The best ideas in the world aren’t feasible if they can’t be scaled and commercialized. And your innovation needs to be accessible to the target consumers. It should be at a price point they can rationalize and sell in physical or digital locations that feel convenient enough to become part of their routine purchasing habits.

What factors should be considered when developing new product innovation?

Ms. Jans: There are so many complex elements to the innovation process, and the most important part is ensuring you address each element early and consistently. You need to be conscious of costs, manufacturing feasibility, market scalability, competitive landscape and consumer needs from day zero to launch.

I think the best way to make sure you’re addressing all the important factors throughout the process is to get cross-functional involvement from the beginning. Don’t silo your innovation until it’s ready to go — get collective input throughout the process and you will always find that you are 10 steps ahead in the end.

How should early-stage brands approach innovation in the current inflationary environment? Is it okay to not innovate right now?

Ms. Jans: This is a tough question, and I think every company will have a different perspective. There’s no doubt that the current inflationary environment coupled with a really challenging supply chain landscape make it extremely difficult for early-stage brands to balance innovation with survival mode.

I think it’s important to prioritize the health of your existing business, but also to allocate some resources to quietly innovate in the background if possible. Keeping up to date on market trends and supply chain issues can ensure you’re not innovating with ingredients or products that will soon become inaccessible. Ultimately, if innovation is out of reach right now, using your energy to really deeply understand your consumer base and to scale your business can set you up for successful future innovation.

How big of a role does market research play in innovation?

Ms. Jans: To me, market research is absolutely critical to the innovation process. But I also believe it doesn’t have to be sophisticated or expensive to be valuable. For bigger companies, it is of course very helpful to purchase market data to inform your innovation pipeline based on trends. But for early-stage brands, there are a ton of scrappy ways to get low-cost market research. If you can establish a brand identity that has a really personal feel to it, you can connect with your consumers on a deeper level than another giant CPG can.

Tools like social media and even simply email can be really helpful to talk directly with your loyal, early consumers to understand why they buy your product and what they would love to see in the future. Beyond that, I think it's really important to pay attention to the competitive landscape of your category and understand where and how you can add value. Simply buying your competitors’ products and finding ways to exceed their value prop can be so informative during the development process.

And finally, it is so important to solicit feedback from people outside your organization before launch. Running a quick neighborhood focus group with some loyal fans or testing the product with your friends and family can be a really useful way to make sure your product actually does taste, look and feel how you think it does. It’s really important to step outside your organizational bias and collect real-world feedback on your product before launching.