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Flavor Matching: An Introduction

By: John Wright
Posted: November 14, 2011
Cover of Flavor Creation, 2nd Edition book

Matching flavors can be a frustrating exercise. Received opinion would have it that advances in GC/MS analytical techniques have made flavor duplication quick and easy. In theory, it should be even possible to set up a profitable flavor company with minimal overhead devoted to nothing more challenging than simply matching the competition. However, the fact that no company of significant size has prospered using this business model is very telling.

Not only is matching technically difficult, but many matching projects also eventually prove to be worthless. One common scenario runs something like this. An important matching brief from a major customer arrives with huge potential, and a short deadline. Analytical quickly produces a reasonable, but not great, first analysis and the unlucky flavorist goes quietly mad trying to make an acceptable duplication. There may not be time for Analytical to recheck the flavorist’s work before Sensory becomes involved, in order to “validate” the match (and to spread the blame later on). The customer is initially enthusiastic but later, to everybody’s surprise, inexplicably cools down.

In all too many instances the matching request was simply a means of pressuring the existing supplier on price and would never have resulted in a sale. In any case, very few product managers are brave enough to change a successful product to save a few cents. This type of matching request is very easy to recognize but very hard, politically, to avoid. The risk of refusing a big project from an important customer is simply too great–and that’s a pity because there is no category of our business that wastes more time and effort. The overall effect is always negative and inevitably cuts margins for the whole industry.

Not all worthless matching projects fit into this category. We are all familiar with the suspicious matching project brought back with apparent pride by novice sales staff. To be fair, it can be very difficult for any salesperson, novice or otherwise, to break into a new account. Persistence is the only approach that works, but too much persistence may lead to a customer handing out an impossible project just to get some peace. Most salespeople are fully aware that they are not being treated seriously by the customer, but quite understandably, still see it as their best chance to gain entry into the account.

Not all matching projects are worthless. There are three important categories of matching projects that can stand a good chance of being highly worthwhile. First, and most important, they may be part of a core listing agreement that involves a reduction in the number of flavor suppliers. This type of project has a very high likelihood of success and is unlikely to be subject to severe time constraints; it will, however, invariably require a high level of matching accuracy.

Second, and almost equally valuable, is the situation where there is a genuine hostility to the current supplier. In both of these categories, the buyer, the product manager and the development laboratories will all be in favor of the change and it is likely to actually happen.

Finally, a customer may wish to match one of their competitor’s products. These projects can be difficult because analytical work will be done on the finished food rather than the actual flavor. Customers in underdeveloped countries sometimes have difficulty obtaining equivalent quality food ingredients when they are attempting the duplication of a competitor’s product. This adds to the challenges facing the flavorist, because it introduces the additional requirement to cover off-notes or introduce missing characters.

Sometimes, in this category of projects, the customer may be open to a match that is broadly similar but has been subtly improved, which makes the whole project more interesting and rewarding.

No subject provokes more hostility and resistance amongst flavorists than matching. Rational arguments about the nature of the brief, such as those above, can be trotted out, but the real problem is that matching is often quite boring and uninteresting.  Very few competitors’ flavors offer the challenge of a totally novel approach or interesting new ingredients, and matching even a simple flavor properly can be very time consuming.

Additionally, both success and failure in a matching project can be dangerous. Failure is unusually damning because many non-creative staff regard matching as mechanical and very easy. Sadly, success can be a double-edged sword because few flavorists want to become the automatic “go to” person for difficult matches, creation being their desire rather than mimicry.

Various solutions to this problem have been attempted. One option is to have the analytical area follow through to work on the flavor. This approach might succeed if analysis were capable of identifying all the important ingredients, but unfortunately that is not often the case. Some analysts do succeed in this function and progress on to a successful creative career, but often the type of personality that is initially drawn into analytical chemistry finds creative work intolerably unscientific and imprecise.

A second option is to have a small cross-section of staff set up to work specifically on matching. This can work because not all flavorists are hostile to matching. Some actually enjoy the challenge and thrive on it as a specialty. It is easier to set up this type of department in a large flavor company because it can achieve a critical mass; often it is not an option in smaller companies.

The final option, which is the one usually chosen in practice by the majority of flavor companies, is to “ration” matches between creative staff. This has the advantage of perceived fairness but it takes little account of the extreme variations between flavorists’ matching abilities.

This information is an excerpt from the book Flavor Creation: 2nd Edition. To learn more about this topic or to purchase the entire book, visit www.Alluredbooks.com.

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