After the monotony of lockdown, consumers are hungry for innovation – but food and drink brands face one of the toughest climates ever for launching and activating new products.

The shift to online buying has a lot to do with it. Online grocery platforms are optimised to reduce friction and encourage repeat purchases. Data from the US suggests as much as 30% of items in online grocery baskets come from ‘buy it again’ and ‘favourites’ widgets. Some commentators put the percentage of baskets that are built habitually as high as 85%.

Even when shoppers actively search for products on retailer sites, most don’t look beyond the first results page. That’s bad news for anyone who cannot (or can’t afford to) rank highly.

Add to this a retail market that remains heavily focused on EDLP and range rationalisation, and you can see why NPD teams have their work cut out. But there are approaches and strategies that can help new products stand out.

At heart, these all come down to enabling consumers to find and engage with your products. This means covering the big fundamentals around retail SEO and optimised product descriptions, but also using your brand community (via social media channels, newsletters, mailing lists and the like) to generate interest and awareness around new products.

Smaller brands often do this very well, essentially pre-launching and pre-activating NPD before it hits shelves. Take flavoured water brand Ugly, which generates excitement around new flavours and limited editions through text alerts and gives subscribers early access to new variants.

Online sampling also holds growing promise, especially at a time when many shoppers, brands and retailers remain cautious about in-person sampling.

In a 2018 study by Bazaarvoice and IGD, two-thirds of UK grocery shoppers said they would be interested in receiving free samples with their regular online shop. And last October, Asda teamed up with Relish Agency to pilot a new online sampling strategy to help boost product discovery, after a similar sampling push for Walmart reportedly resulted in a 115% uplift to food sales.

Having said that, sampling isn’t the right fit for every product and can be expensive, so it’s important brands keep a keen eye on ROI and explore multiple providers and partners (in addition to grocery retailers, food delivery platforms, recipe boxes and fashion retailers are all potential options).

It’s also worth paying close attention to what leading brands in impulse categories are doing online. The challenges faced by impulse brands are very similar to the challenges around NPD, so there are lots of opportunities to learn. In the US, for example, some confectionery brands are now working to find ways to add impulse purchases to kerbside pickups – an approach that might also yield lessons for NPD activation.

In light of the HFSS debate and growing shopper interest in health and wellness, activating healthy NPD is a focus for many. And there is cause for optimism: health-conscious consumers tend to shop more carefully and spend more time studying product information; plus, they’re interested in discovering new products that fit in with specific health and lifestyle choices. All this makes them potentially more open to messages about NPD, provided new products tick the right health boxes.

For brands to make the most of this, however, they will need support from retailers. The look and feel of many retailer sites remains highly functional, with few (if any) opportunities for customisation and storytelling. It’s hard for brands to generate excitement around NPD in such an environment – banner ads and ‘new’ flashes can only get you so far.

Ocado is a rare exception. Its website makes it easy to discover and browse new items, and its product range is organised and catalogued with a high level of granularity, enabling shoppers to discover products based on specific dietary requirements. Its new partnership with Foodmaestro, which allows shoppers to set up a personalised food profile and have products ‘flagged’ for allergens, further helps navigate the range and zero in on items that could be of interest.

Hopefully we’ll see more of this across grocery retail in the coming months. Food and drink NPD teams are champing at the bit to give shoppers the excitement they crave. But they will need retail partners to work with them to truly make NPD shine online.

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