Reformulation specialisation – how to successfully tweak a winning recipe

There is always a certain amount of risk involved when a company chooses to tweak a winning recipe.

Consumers are demanding folk that want food to be healthier, cheaper and more accessible – but at the same time if you alter the recipe, you could find yourself in the middle of a PR nightmare.

In the mid-1980s, the Coca-Cola Company was starting to lose market share to its main competitor Pepsi. In order to win back consumers, Coca-Cola reformulated the recipe for the first time in 99 years and renamed the beverage New Coke. The new recipe was met with a surge of consumer complaints and saw the return of the original recipe only a few months after the initial launch.

Identifying the fine line between product innovation and an outright marketing disaster is a complicated task that involves extensive market research, product testing and sometimes a bit of pure faith.

When the British subsidiary of Kellogg’s released a reformulated version of the veteran women’s cereal Special K in May 2013, it was met with a host of complaints from previously loyal customers who called for the return of the original recipe. Consumers complained that the new recipe was too sugary despite holding the same sugar content as the original recipe, while others complained that the flakes were too hard.

These were all lessons that the Australian division of Kellogg’s no doubt kept in mind when they decided to increase the nutritional content of Special K down under by adding a higher wholegrain content and decreasing the sodium levels of the recipe.

Keeping the special in Special K

The Australian recipe for Special K had not been touched in over 50 years and as such, Kellogg’s made a conscious effort to tread very lightly and develop a new recipe that ticked additional nutritional boxes without compromising on taste and texture.

Food magazine recently spoke Special K’s Senior Brand Manager, Kate Harris about the process involved in changing Special K’s recipe and what it was that motivated Kellogg’s to take an educated risk on one of its most popular products.

“Special K as a brand has always been on a journey with Australian women and being around for 50 years meant that we needed to evolve with our consumers,” said Harris.

Harris explains that as the Special K consumer has evolved, the demand for healthy food options and better nutritional content in breakfast cereals has also increased.

“We’ve listened to what they are looking for in a breakfast cereal and we’ve made positive changes to best meet those desires.”

According to Harris, the process of tweaking the recipe to meet the needs of the brand’s customers meant upping the nutritional content without changing the taste or consistency of the signature Special K flake.

“Making changes to our food and getting it right in the eyes of our consumers takes time. Replicating the taste and consistency was incredibly important. We used not only internal quality checks but also took the product to consumers to get their feedback through research.

“We know that consumers love the taste of Special K which is why we worked so hard to ensure that this did not change.”

Considering how the changes were executed in the UK back in 2013, it was imperative that the Australian subsidiary adapted the recipe to local market accordingly. Harris explains that as Special K is a global brand found in many countries, decisions for the brand’s direction are made with each individual market in mind.

“The changes made in the UK are not the same as those made in Australia and New Zealand. “As a global brand we always strive to take learnings from each market and adapt and reapply those where appropriate in another one.”

The new recipe was released on the 3rd of February, and according to Harris, consumers have responded positively to the changes.

“When we were in the process of reformulating Special K, we wanted to be sure that our customers would be happy with the changes. The Special K consumer was kept front of mind throughout the process, which is why keeping the signature taste while also introducing the increased benefits of nutrition was equally important.

“The new Special K is now a better source of fibre than the previous recipe, a source of wholegrain, features about 15 per cent less sodium and is still one of the highest protein cereals available.”

Slow and steady wins the race

Early last year, fellow cereal manufacturer Uncle Toby’s reformulated its entire breakfast cereal range to comply with new nutritional guidelines set out by the Federal Government – becoming one of the first manufacturers to do so. Uncle Toby’s regional nutrition manager, Nilani Sritharan said that the transition to a more nutritious portfolio was no easy feat.

Sritharan told Food magazine back in 2013 that the key to making any change was ensuring that customers stayed on-side. She said that making small healthy improvements over time is far preferable to introducing an immediate change, and that a slow transition period often results in consumers not even detecting a change in the recipe.

In addition to keeping consumers happy, Sritharan said that keeping the cost structure down is another factor that needs to be considered due to the time invested in R&D in addition to more expensive ingredients. She also mentioned that healthy improvements don’t necessarily require new manufacturing processes, and that often changes can be achieved simply through a tweaking of current procedures.

“I don't think it fundamentally changes the manufacturing process but you may find there are changes in texture or stickiness that we would have to work through and adjust for,” she said.

Sritharan sighted the popular children’s cereal Cheerios as a prime example. Since 2008 Cheerios had reduced its sodium content by 40 percent and boosted its fibre content by 25 percent, with wholegrain content rising by a similar margin.

“For example with Cheerios, increasing the wholegrain content can sometimes make the Cheerio a bit softer or affect the loop shape itself.

“So looking at some of the mixed grains we have in there, we have to try and balance that out.”

As was the case with Coca-Cola, Kellogg's and Uncle Toby's, any reformulation process is indeed a matter of trail and error but two key learnings will undoubtablely have you on the path to success: 

Firstly, listen. Listening to your consumers is something that manufacturers need to keep top of mind during the reformulation process, no matter how fantastic the new health credentials may be. And secondly, whether a food manufacturer is tweaking a recipe to abide with new regulations or simply aiming to improve the current nutritional content, slow, steady and subtle adjustments are the key to successfully introducing the improved product.