For complex profiles—think ‘masala’, ‘peri-peri’ and just about any taste that’s a composition of individual flavors—the goal is to minimize subjectivity gaps. F&F houses not only have sensory departments for different food groups (sweets, beverages, savory/snacks, dairy, confectionery), but also rely on consumer insights.
Part of an external panel
For new product development (more so for big clients), 15-20 consumers are interviewed to be part of an external panel that will determine ‘the best’ in various benchmarks. It’s painstaking: these panelists have to be trained in an F&F house’s nomenclature so they can pinpoint sensory exactitudes others can’t. This alone can take up to two months.
The results by the external panel, along with those by an internal F&F panel, are then analyzed to determine the sensory benchmark for a product. In Amul’s case, Kaju katli.
Problems creep in while executing perfection. Kaju katli, a mix of powdered cashews, sugar, ghee, cardamom and (optional) rose water, sets at room temperature. But when your medium is ice cream:
“The first hurdle was retaining the caramelized taste of cashew and sugar in a frozen product. Molecules that act a certain way don’t do so in a different medium and temperature. And milk itself has complicated traits,” Prajapati explains. “Then came issues with texture. Then aroma. And I had to remind myself it’s one thing to get flavor right, another to perfect a flavor profile.”
The exercise took 15 months, and the flavor took off in Amul ice-cream parlors. Circa 2019, though, it’s unavailable.
Let’s hark to Unibic’s Mani and his opinion that most biscuit brands in India aren’t creative. A fair point, perhaps, because the most visible innovation seems to be the near-disappearance of cream in the cream center biscuits.
What the likes of Britannia and Parle have though, is unrivaled reach. A reminder that your palate can reach for the skies, but feet are forced to stay rooted. The fact that it’s hard to find in retail outlets outside of South and Northeast India, where they do reasonably well, is why Unibic’s Scotch Fingers—a take on Walker’s famous shortbread, with 30% butter and priced at Rs 5—is not widely known.
Does this bottleneck also extend to the brand’s chili and jeera cookies? Sumit Dasgupta, managing director of Mane SA’s India arm, contends that Indians simply have some of the most conservative palates in the world.
“Our marketing team, on reconnaissances to find the next best taste, returns to the same observation: that Indians tend to stick to vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, mango and other ‘mono’ flavors for sweet products, and masala, tomato and cream and onion for savory,” he says. India may be one of the biggest markets for F&F companies, but consumers in other Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand, he adds, are more adventurous.
Leaving the things behind
A collectively staid palate may also be why Raw Pressery had to boot red bell pepper from its Shield juice, leaving behind orange, carrot, and ginger to boost unit sales. Why their ready-to-drink sweet corn soup—a conscious tangent off powdered “Indian Chinese” sweet corn soups—is lagging behind the mushroom and tomato flavors.
Or why premium yogurt brand Epigamia’s Rohan Mirchandani had to withdraw two savory snack packs: jalapeno and cream-and-onion Greek yogurt with barley puffs.
Another DSG Consumer-backed startup, Epigamia’s parent company Drums Food International recently raised Rs 182 crore ($25.67 million) from Danone Manifesto Ventures and others. Drums CEO Mirchandani now wants to expand from high protein snacking to “plant-based, probiotic yogurt”.
Drums Food’s innovations lab, led by co-founder Ganesh Krishnamoorthy and consisting of 15 people, developed a key-lime-flavored yogurt on Mirchandani’s request. It didn’t take long for the US-cultured CEO to realize that key lime, a quintessentially-Florida flavor, wouldn’t work in India… yet.
“I was the only one in the room who loved it. The rest asked, ‘Who the hell in India will have lime-flavored yogurt?’” he remembers. That key lime is the second-best-selling flavor by Chobani—the brand that popularised Greek yogurt in the US—doesn’t matter here.