The Big Interview: Fiona Phillips, Dairy Crest

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Fiona Phillips
Fiona Phillips

Related tags: Dairy crest, New product development, Npd

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Product development demands guts, patience, humility in the face of failure, openness to what it can teach you and perseverance where you believe an idea can be successful.

These are certainly qualities dear to the heart of Fiona Phillips, the director of new product development (NPD) at Dairy Crest's foods division. "To be successful in NPD you will always have failures," she says. "The most important thing is to make sure you learn from them. We have recently been comparing the success of Cathedral City with the failure of Lymeswold, a cheese Dairy Crest launched in the early 1980s. It makes for a very interesting case study.

"I'm keen to get teams looking at why products were successes, and, where they struggled, the real learnings and how we can develop them. There's also an element of making sure that if you do fail, it's not a catastrophic failure."

In case you were wondering, the key lesson with Lymeswold was consistency, namely "making sure you have consistent production that can deliver quality even when you scale up", says Phillips.

As well as providing an opportunity to learn, the challenges make the triumphs more worthwhile, she says. The two successes causing Phillips to radiate the most pride at present are Cathedral City Mature Lighter, sales of which have now topped £25M, and Clover Lighter, both launched two years ago. She calls the latter, which has just been rolled out in 1kg format, "the biggest launch in the butters and spreads category in the last five years".

Referring to the low fat Cathedral City variant, she says: "It was really important to develop a cheese that delivered on taste even though it was 30% lighter and the team delivered a really successful product. We saw a lot of products that were lower in fat, but didn't taste good to the consumer. You have got to deliver something the consumer will eat."

With Dairy Crest having cut 6,400t of saturated fat out of products to date, much of Phillips' recent work has been focused on healthier reformulation. This is certainly her biggest test at the moment, especially when measured against the high demand for 'natural' products. "You can add ingredients to replace fat, but the consumer will see these as 'additives'. The challenge is to meet consumer requirements and still make things as natural as possible."

Phillips is adamant this cannot be a solo task. She's certainly someone who holds to the 'no I in team' rule, stressing the importance of what she calls "an innovation culture" across the whole of Dairy Crest. "Dairy Crest has a target that 10% of our annual turnover comes from products launched within the last three years." One of the biggest drivers behind this is "a clear communication strategy and vision for the business that you want to develop products that meet consumer need and earn consumer loyalty", says Phillips.

Having the correct people and processes in place to deliver fresh ideas is vital, she says. "I really see NPD as the life blood of the business. In a recession especially it's important to work on products to be ready when it finishes. You can only do that if you have an innovation culture. I believe there has been a step change in Dairy Crest in the past few years and it's something we continue to work on."

She cites an innovation conference that brought together 100 people who work on NPD across the company earlier this year as an example of its efforts to foster a creative mindset. "The objective was to share ideas, potential new products and new emerging technologies."

For Phillips, innovation has to stretch beyond the NPD team. "It hits every part of the business. It needs to be delivered by cross-functional teams and you need everyone's buy-in. All our development projects are managed by cross-functional teams. Products and solutions don't all come from the NPD department. "

She should know, because while she has spent all her career so far in the dairy industry, her background before her present job was not NPD. "I was head-hunted and, as I had been in production and technical, I thought it would be interesting to try an NPD role."

Her experience helps inform her NPD decisions. "I have a good understanding of production and some of the hurdles to making a new product." At the same time, she tries not to let this knowledge interfere with the creative process. "When I do brainstorming and really blue-sky stuff, I switch off all that because it can restrict you. But once you have the concept, it does mean you have a view of who you need to get into the process or from the food science perspective what will be a challenge." Phillips says it's crucial to have the courage of your convictions if you believe an idea is workable, even if it's hard work, despite the number of products that fall at these hurdles. "It happens a lot of the time. That's why some businesses find NPD so difficult. It's easy to find 15 ways why you can't do something.

"You think you have jumped through all the hurdles, then something unexpected happens. You have to think: is this something positive that can help me go forward?"

For that reason, the NPD process can be a long one, although the solutions can lead to leaps forward in other areas of the business or other products. "A minor renovation can take four to six weeks, while an innovation project can take substantially longer." The low fat Cathedral City and Clover variants, for example, took about two years to pull off, says Phillips. "The time frame depends on the complexity of the product and the capital expenditure. If you need quite significant production line investment, it can be quite a lengthy project."

Products with longer shelf -lives take longer to perfect too, as you can only celebrate once their life cycle has expired. "If you have a cheese with a shelf -life of many months you need to get to the end of its life before you can say it's acceptable."

As part of the process of finding solutions to technical and manufacturing issues, external communication lines must be kept open, Phillips adds. "We are continually working with research houses, academic institutions and other organisations to increase our expertise. We use consumer taste tests and sensory panels."

Knowing when to contract out production where necessary is also important. "It's essential to get products to market quickly. If you don't have the capability, you have to look at outsourcing."

It's all part of being open to outside influences and inspiration, she says. "We look at consumer trends, other chilled product categories, even ambient and grocery. We have even had staff looking at pet shops to see how they look at snacking.

"We look at new processing techniques and how they work in production, we work closely with suppliers, attend conferences and look at databases that show new products launched around the world."

All this monitoring has led her to believe that in addition to the healthier reformulation movement, other trends lie just around the corner for the dairy category. "The key trends remain health, pleasure and convenience, but within those environmental and ethical concerns have grown. The consumer is more aware of how you manufacture products and the conditions of the workforce. Recently our dairies team has developed a patented milk jug, JUGIT, which reduces packaging by 75% and makes recycling easier. "

NPD needs to take much more account of the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process now, says Phillips. Food security, local sourcing and fair trade issues also have much more bearing on the derivation of ingredients such as oils for spreads.

Encouraging an innovation culture addresses internal barriers to NPD, but there are external restrictions beyond a company's control such as supply shortages and volatile ingredients costs. For Phillips, however, that's just all part of the buzz. "You get frustrated, but I love that challenge."

Related topics: People & Skills, Chilled foods, Dairy

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