NEW YORK — Consumer insights are a powerful tool for food entrepreneurs and may be used to guide decisions around product development, positioning, price and sales strategy, said Katie Hagan, senior marketing and innovation leader at Mattson, San Francisco.

“You want to make sure your product idea has legs and can scale to the broader community,” Ms. Hagan said during a Jan. 20 presentation at the virtual Specialty Food Live! event. “You can be talking to consumers about your current product lines, products you have in development or even just ideas about new products you want to use to expand your portfolio. The ability to tap into what consumers are thinking before you make a big investment can also be really valuable.”

Such data may prove beneficial in discussions with investors, retailers and other key stakeholders, Ms. Hagan said.

Founders have a number of options to gather critical feedback, from focus groups to online surveys. In-store demos and sampling events, which have been largely canceled by the pandemic, provide instant and actionable learnings.

“Take advantage of high-traffic events, whether it’s a conference or a farmers market or a mall setting,” Ms. Hagan said. “The ability to interview people who are highly engaged in a particular area is a great way to gather feedback.”

Katlin Smith, founder of Simple Mills, captured useful information in the early days of her business while sharing samples of the brand’s gluten-free baking mixes at a Whole Foods Market store.

“Take advantage of high-traffic events … The ability to interview people who are highly engaged in a particular area is a great way to gather feedback.” — Katie Hagan, Mattson

“Consumers gave her all kinds of ideas for how to expand the portfolio,” Ms. Hagan said. “Based on what she learned in those demo sessions, she launched into frosting, for example, and also continued to fill the pipeline with other ideas the consumers were giving her as they tasted her product.”

Jon Sebastiani, the creator of Krave jerky, tested his product at yoga studios and fitness centers to tap into a broader consumer base and elevate perceptions of the meat snack category.

“He sampled the product deliberately to women, and the resulting feedback he got … was his pastel packaging and much more gourmet flavors,” Ms. Hagan said. “All of that resulted from the feedback he got from the demoing he was doing, deliberately targeting the female community.”

Prior to founding Purely Elizabeth, Elizabeth Stein, then a nutritionist, shared samples of homemade muffins at a race expo to promote her services.

“What actually happened was she didn’t get any new clients, but she decided to launch her muffin business because everybody adored her healthy muffins,” Ms. Hagan said. “The consumer feedback she got at this race was the reason she launched the company in the first place.”

A multiple-choice, online survey is an inexpensive and quick way to collect insights, Ms. Hagan said. Startups may reach engaged consumers through email subscription lists and social media, offering discounts or free product to encourage participation. She advised avoiding questions that are leading or loaded.

“Remember to keep your surveys short,” she said. “They’re happy to answer a few questions, but they start rolling their eyes if it gets too long, and you don’t want that data.”  



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