Marc Pruijssers gives a crash course in Product Development for Agro Entrepreneurs

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17 May 2019

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On the value of failure and focus


Marc Pruijssers, lecturer and education coordinator Food Innovation at the HAS University of Applied Sciences in Venlo, is originally an industrial designer specialized in packaging. After years of working at several large food manufacturers such as Mars and Heinz, he switched to education in 2012 and developed the Food Innovation course in Venlo in 2014. The course is a counterpart to the Food Technology course, which primarily looks at processes within the sector and within the company. Food Innovation looks more outward and analyzes consumer trends and developments in the market. In 2018, the first batch of students graduated and around 50 students start the course each year.
Kiempunt spoke with Pruijssers about the question: what should the food producer do anno 2019 to be successful with product development?

Efficiency is no longer a magic bullet

Pruijssers comes straight to the point and immediately explains where the shoe pinches: "The Dutch agricultural sector has traditionally been strongly production-oriented. Efficiency, low costs per product, consistency, safety: we are by far the best at this. Slowly but surely, however, we are running out of steam. We have gone from 6 kilos of tomatoes per year to 60 kilos per square meter, but we cannot achieve much more than that. And surrounding countries are also becoming better at this. Countries with a different cost structure that are becoming more competitive in terms of quality should set alarm bells ringing. It is time to distinguish yourself in other ways than on a favorable price-quality ratio."

Being distinctive

Happily, there are a hundred ways to be distinctive in other ways. "You can add value with taste, with positive health effects, with a more sustainable product or with branding and storytelling. I'm not saying it's easy, especially if you have to learn a new way of marketing, it's really tough. The sector must reinvent itself in this and still learn a lot about product development, marketing and branding."
Incidentally, Pruijssers does not expect the market of high volume and low prices to disappear. "Bulk production will always remain. If you want to continue doing that in the Netherlands, you will have to invest in scaling up, new technologies and in robotization. Also fine. But of course there are farmers who don't want that, want to keep it simple and don't want to grow even more. Then you need a distinctive offering and you can, for example, focus on a different product or variety."

Tasty Tom

Tasty Tom Pruijssers cites as a great example of successfully adding value. "Dutch tomatoes were tasteless and soon got the name Wasserbombe. With Tasty Tom, entrepreneur Ton Janssen developed a very tasty tomato and created a strong brand. He thus managed to tap into a new market and was able to charge higher prices for his product. By the way, it is a shame to see that they are now letting go of the branding a bit. Under the Albert Heijn Uitblinkers brand, their product is now put away and only the letters of an inkjet printer are printed on the packaging: Tasty Tom. In my opinion, this is how you lose control over your own brand."

Image removed.

From flour to shake bottle

Pruijssers encourages students and entrepreneurs to look at their product in value terms. He illustrates this with a simple example: a kilo of flour costs less than half a euro, while a pack of pancake mix weighing only 400 grams costs double that and you only add some raising agent. A 200 gram shaker bottle, which already contains eggs and allows the consumer to make the batter in the package himself and thus save on washing up, is worth as much as €1.70 to the consumer. The packaging thus takes on a more important role in the value process. The price is determined only to a small extent by the cost of ingredients and to a large extent by the value of convenience and time savings.

Letting go of focus on cost

"Producers tend to think from cost: this is the cost price, a margin on it and done. But you can also start from value. You don't need much to satisfy hunger. But you add value when you make people happy, let them enjoy, connect to a moment of use or save them time. So start with value first and only then look at costs. If you sell a chopped onion, you have added value. The consumer saves time and avoids the discomfort of teary eyes. If you process cucumber into a healthy children's snack in handy squeeze packs, you combine that convenience with the value of healthy eating and good, responsible parenting. Or take a product like asparagus: very easy to link to values like well-being and enjoying the good life.

Failure is part of the game


If you are going to work on product development, then failure is part of the game, warns Pruijssers. "One in ten food innovations is successful, the rest die an early death. Many products do not make it because they are not distinctive enough or are priced too high relative to the value they offer. You see that in the organic segment, which has become too much of a commodity, just the label organic is not good enough for a really higher price. Also, it is often forgotten to invest in the brand and its positioning, maintenance and marketing. Or water is added to the wine when it comes to price or quality.
Successful brand manufacturers take into account some failure and factor it in. But primary producers are not used to this, with bulk production the customer is certain. That's why it's important to have financial room and be able to learn by trial and error. There is also a role for banks in this. You do see that they are also picking up on this more and more: good plans are embraced and get funding."

Invasive change

It is clear: product development and food innovation is not child's play. "The change is profound, especially for the current generation that needs to shed old thinking. I see two types of entrepreneurs: those who have the knife at their throat and therefore really go for it. And the group that is intrinsically motivated and really wants to do it. The latter group is mainly the new generation: they want to be different, it suits them better. And please note: this is not something you can do half-heartedly, for example partly continue to deliver in bulk and partly try to market yourself. It's not a hobby, it needs focus and serious attention. An interesting player, for example, is Wijnen Square Crops. They developed mini cucumbers and started supplying them directly to the supermarket under the name BoostyBites." Pruijssers also does not necessarily recommend doing product innovation. "If it's about getting through a few more years, then going with the bulk market is the safest thing to do. If you want to get ahead for another 30 or 40 years, I would also start looking at other revenue models."

Wines Square Corps

Wines Square Crops now produces mini cucumbers and markets them under the name Boosty Bites


Integral approach

The HAS itself helps entrepreneurs explore new opportunities together with students. "Having student projects done is a good way to overcome your cold feet and get inspired by the students who look at your company and your product with fresh eyes. And if you're really serious, then a final project is a good option to have the feasibility of your plan examined or a new concept developed. In any case, it is important to gather good professionals around you if you don't know how to market yourself. Especially professionals who think strategically and approach the issue integrally. If you immediately go to work with online specialists, for example, then there is a good chance that you will have a beautiful webshop for a product that few people are waiting for.

Limburg as value

For the agrofood sector in Limburg, Pruijssers still sees plenty of potential for product innovation. "If you look at it geographically, Venlo in particular is an important logistics hub, which is interesting for processing companies. Chemelot can also be interesting as a sales market for semi-finished products.
And then there is Limburg as a culinary brand value. Consumers associate Limburg with taste, Burgundy, the good life. If you know how to link those values to your food product, that is very strong. Think of Bertolli, which has managed to link the values of Italy to its products."

7 tips from Marc Pruijssers in agri-food product development

1: Think about what suits you as an entrepreneur: what type of business do you have in mind, how do you want to develop?

2: Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer, don't think from your own preferences and consumption behavior

3: Be self-critical, be open to new insights and dare to change

4: Work with professionals who take an integrated approach to the issue

5: Allow room for failure, not everything succeeds right away

6: Go all the way if you choose a new revenue model with in-house product development. Combining bulk production with marketing your own products does not work.

7: Think in value rather than cost (the shaker bottle of pancake mix)