As part of our ongoing series* of expert insights into the future of the flavor and fragrance industry, Marie Wright, flavor creation manager, International Flavors and Fragrances, shares her thoughts on the future of the art and science of flavor creation. Share your feedback and thoughts here.
The science of consumer behavior has become an ever-increasing influence on the way food products are designed and brought to market. Studies of consumer behaviors and preferences are used to determine the best profiles in the context that they will be “liked” by the most consumers. Has this emerging understanding information doomed the role of the creative flavorist? Will the next generation of flavors be made by super computers, changing the ingredients to simply meet the highest preference, or will artistry survive?
I have always been very proud to describe my profession as a creative one. There is something really cool about being an artist; I have the opportunity to create something new, something people love and that they develop a deep emotional connection with. The best description I can give of my work is “the artistry of taste.”
The artistry of creating flavors is learned through example and experience. Like any form of art, mastering the creation of flavors involves a passion for learning new styles and techniques. Over time, one’s individual creative style emerges based on one’s influences, challenges and experiences. The artistry lies in the ability of a flavorist to allow the right side of the brain to work harmoniously with the left. A successful flavorist can imagine the taste and smell of a complex mixture of components. A master flavorist—just like artists such as Van Gogh, Rothko or Pollock—has developed his or her own unique style and ability to create taste.
In the 1980s our industry was vigorous and highly dynamic, with a diverse range of flavor and fragrance companies. It was a time of discovery and a time when each new chemical was a distinct point of differentiation. There was much excitement when new molecules became available to fuel the creative drive. Creating new, unique (and more natural tasting) flavors was the driving force for all leading companies. New molecules were the spearhead of technology and the market was very much ready to accept the distinctive new flavors that were created.
In the 1990s analytical methods became very sophisticated, and understanding nature was paramount in developing new and novel tastes. At IFF we stretched our creative skills within our Generessence**program by imposing the discipline of creating flavors that only contained components discovered in the named product. This may appear to be a simple requirement, but it is not. Many old and familiar artificial chemicals were routinely used in flavors and were hard to eliminate. For example, strawberry aldehyde is not found in strawberries but it has an odor that is actually more reminiscent of strawberries than any of the individual major ingredients that are present in the named food. In the correct combination, the major ingredients perform vastly better than strawberry aldehyde, but getting to that conclusion requires a leap of faith.
During the 1990s, core supplier lists started to emerge, and the notion of using consumer testing to determine the best flavor assumed more objective importance in the decision-making process associated with the launch of new products. In the present decade, increased reliance on consumer testing has had an even more significant and restrictive effect on creativity. Current testing methods used for evaluating products can easily result in mediocrity: flavors that appeal to the most consumers while offending the fewest. The result is that we can easily get into a pattern of recreating the same flavors over and over again.
The current economic challenges are obviously going to dominate the market in 2009, and for the next few years there will be fewer launches as our customers try to control costs and the market focuses on value. Producers may rely even more heavily on consumer testing to reduce risk in launching new products. The more products are tested, the less differentiation we will see among them.
We can learn from the success stories of other industries in demonstrating the importance of creativity in creating brand loyalty. Take Apple; why do people buy iPods? There are many other mp3 player options out there, and some of them are cheaper or offer better technology. iPods win because they are a triumph of creative design. People want to own something that is beautiful and cool looking. Why do people buy BMWs? BMWs, like iPods, are distinctive and demonstrate creative flair. In fact, the company has used an Italian designer to add individuality to its cars because it recognized the need for the cars to stand out from the pack. Not everybody liked the new designs, but the success of this approach is demonstrated in their market share.
The challenge for the flavorist will be to develop better, more distinctive signature flavors while maintaining costs. We must continue to look at using novel raw materials to provide unique profiles. If a material is new and exciting, then more often than not it will be sufficiently powerful to be used at such a low level that cost should not be an issue. More than ever, it is important for the larger companies to focus on their creative resources and perhaps look to other industries as an example. The current crisis, like all such crises in the past, will prove to be temporary, but it does provide us with an opportunity to remodel ourselves for the future. The future success of our industry will depend on our success in challenging our creative paradigm.
If we want to develop tastes people really love, we have to take some risks. There will always be a segment of the market that will take the opposite view. More polarizing products have little chance of doing well in simple consumer tests and require more courage and vision to bring them to market. But it is this distinction that will build brand loyalty and repeat purchasing.
If flavor houses are going to stand out from the pack, then they must continue to focus their efforts on creativity and originality, even in these trying times. In the end, exceptional flavors will sell, and the flavor house that creates them will be dominant. At IFF, the flavorists are challenged to elevate their creative skills. The opportunity to create exceptional flavors is seen as a necessity for personal development and also for the growth of the company. It is important to create flavors out of our comfort zone. The extra effort needed to create something extraordinary requires exceptional creativity and discomfort, leading to success!
We must invest in the future and preserve the passion. Junior flavorists are the future; they need to learn to be creative and, like artists, develop techniques and unique styles. They can learn from remodeling existing flavors and cost-reducing matches, but the emphasis should always be on moving up to the next level of creative ability. In this way, our industry will continue to grow and thrive, and creativity will remain the mainstay of our profession.
*Perfumer & Flavorist magazine, January 2009, page 45; future editions: P&Fnow, January 21 and January 28.
**Generessence is a trademark of IFF.