Since the low-carbohydrate craze fizzled, the baking industry has stepped up its product innovation efforts, awakening a giant that had been sleeping for too long. High-volume bakeries, from national to regional players, became rejuvenated with the prospect of boosting sales through good old-fashioned measures: developing new products to meet changing consumer demands.
Seems simple enough, but it is not. After 2004, a line has been drawn in the sand. On one side sit bakeries willing to push their product lines in new and exciting directions. These bakeries have reversed negative sales trends and breathed new life into categories such as breads and rolls. On the other side of the line rest idle bakeries attempting to recapture lost sales by trotting out stale product lines in need of reformulation and resurrection.
George Weston Bakeries, through a recent impressive string of product launches, has been proven a baking industry leader in product innovation. The company has satiated evolving consumer tastes with new products that not only meet consumer expectations, but exceed them.
The bakery has accomplished this through a vast network that produces an extensive line of popular branded products, including Arnold, D'Italiano, Entenmann's, Brownberry, Freihofer's, Stroehmann and Thomas'. These products are produced throughout more than 60 baking facilities, with a stronghold in regions east of the Mississippi River.
Leading the new product innovation charge at George Weston Bakeries are two product groups that share common goals, but operate distinctively from one another. The bread and roll group, which consists of popular brands such as Arnold, Brownberry, Freihofer's and Stroehmann, has exhibited flexibility and speed to launch a slew of new products this year aimed directly at emerging product trends. Fran Strazzella, George Weston Bakeries' vice president of marketing, is a key member of this team, and has served the company for nearly 20 years.
Pankaj Talwar, vice president of marketing for Thomas', has helped guide the brand of bagels and English muffins for the last five years. Recently, this group has introduced several exciting new products that fulfill consumer demands for more healthful, but great tasting, products. Strazzella and Talwar recently spent time with the editors of Baking Management, explaining the company's research and development process and product innovations.
In the last 20 years, Strazzella has witnessed first hand the evolution of the bread aisle. "Since 1987, the biggest change I have seen is the decline in white bread consumption and the increase in whole grain consumption," Strazzella says.
Although this change has been taking place over the last couple of decades, more progress has been made in the last three years than in the previous 20 years. George Weston is positioned to capitalize on this trend. The company's existing Whole Grain Classics line under the Arnold brand in the East Coast and Brownberry brand in the Midwest, satisfies existing whole grain fans and offers recent converts multiple choices.
"We have really taken advantage of consumers' increased demands for the whole grain side of the business, especially the Whole Grain Classics line, where we have seen tremendous growth," Strazzella says.
While the Whole Grain Classics line has proven a solid, consistent performer in the company's bread and roll line, George Weston Bakeries recently has expanded its lines to further capitalize on consumer demand for betterforyou breads.
These new products are the result of the company's intense focus on today's consumer. "We've spent more time over the last few years talking to our consumers and finding out what they want and what they will eat," Strazzella says. "We understand consumers more than ever."
Through research, focus groups and taste tests, the bakery has built a library of knowledge on today's consumer. The company's endeavor to understand its consumers has set a path for new product introductions.
While researching consumer taste preferences, the company also examined consumer attitudes toward health claims. "We learned a lot about the misperceptions that consumers have about health claims," Strazzella says. "We also learned that some health claims are not as important as others, and we learned what consumers thought about emerging claims."
For example, the company's health claim focus group reinforced the value of whole grain, fiber and calcium claims, while pointing out that soy claims are still valuable, but do not have the same impact as they did in years past. The company also learned that omega-3 fatty acid claims are emerging, and consumers know that omega-3s are good for them, but consumers often are confused to what benefits these healthful fats offer. Most importantly, the company gained a greater understanding of consumer attitudes toward whole grain labeling. "We discovered that there is consumer confusion with whole grain labeling and knowing the difference between a 'good' and 'excellent' source," Strazzella says.
As a result, the company uses descriptors such as "good" and "excellent" sources combined with factual statements about the gram content of whole grains in a serving. The company also does not label its products "whole grain" unless the first ingredient is whole wheat flour. These health claim and labeling insights have given the company an edge in formulating new products with the ideal message.
Made with whole grains
Similar to other bakeries, George Weston has capitalized on growing demand for whole grains by launching a line of made with Whole Grain White wheat products under the Stroehmann and Freihofer's brands. The products, called Soft & Tasty made with Whole Grain White, debuted in April at supermarkets in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
When formulating this product, the company went to great lengths to preserve traditional white bread characteristics, mainly color and texture. This required a delicate balance of white whole wheat flour and typical white flour, delivering whole grain nutrition in a product that tastes, looks and feels like white bread. The products' health profile per serving includes:
- 8 grams of whole grains
- 4 grams of fiber
- 25% of the daily value of calcium
- 25% of the daily value of vitamin D
- 15% of the daily value of folic acid.
George Weston Bakeries also has brought its made with Whole Grain line to its Thomas' brand with English muffins and bagels. These products were introduced in May, and marked a broadening of white wheat flour usage in categories other than bread. Thomas' Original made with Whole Grain English Muffins have performed well since its launch, Talwar says, capitalizing on whole grain nutrition without sacrificing taste. "Mothers tend to buy the least controversial product, and this product gives them the ability to bring healthier products into their family without sacrificing appearance, taste and texture," he says.
In addition to English muffins, Thomas' also produces a Plain New York Style made with Whole Grain Bagel. The products' health profile per serving includes:
- 10 grams of whole grains
- 11 grams of protein
- 3 grams of fiber
- 20% of the daily value of iron
- 10% of the daily value of calcium.
Double fiber, maintain taste
In addition to a growing line of made with Whole Grain products, George Weston Bakeries also has taken advantage of increased demand for more healthful products by launching a high-fiber bread under the Arnold brand.
Arnold Whole Grain Classics Double Fiber delivers what its name implies, double the amount of fiber of a traditional bread. The products' health profile includes 5 grams of fiber and 18 grams of whole grain per slice.
Contrary to its Made with Whole Grain line, the company introduced this product with almost no marketing support. "We were riding the wave of whole grain and we had learned from our focus groups that fiber was really important, and so we just screamed fiber all over the product's packaging," Strazzella says.
So far, this strategy has worked perfectly. Since its January launch, the bread product has been a "tremendous success," Strazzella says. "Since the end of January, it has grown every week and it could be one of our top sellers in the near future," Strazzella says.
The biggest obstacle of this launch, and all of the company's recent product introductions, is ensuring that taste is never sacrificed for added nutrition.
"The one thing about the baking industry that hasn't changed, is that consumers want products that taste good," Strazzella says. "That will never change."
What is changing, however, is the face of the bread, bagel and English muffin aisles. George Weston Bakeries is at the forefront of this change and has exhibited the traits of an industry leader in providing innovative new products that conform to consumer preferences.
Stroehmann Soft & Tasty made with Whole Grain White
Thomas' White Whole Wheat English Muffins
Arnold Whole Grain Classics Double Fiber