How to test and perfect a product - Annabel Karmel

Leading entrepreneur and No.1 Children’s Cookery Author, Annabel Karmel, is no stranger to product development. After building her business empire from scratch at her kitchen table, Annabel has grown to become one of the UK’s most trusted, influential female entrepreneurs with 40 books, supermarket food ranges, weaning equipment, healthy snacks and smartphone apps. In this blog she reveals the process she goes through before she launches any product.

In her new book – MUMPRENEUR: The Complete Guide to Starting and Running a Successful Business – Annabel uses her wealth of experience in juggling the demands of motherhood with building a thriving enterprise to help equip other women with the confidence, skills and tools to set up their own businesses.

"There’s nothing more rewarding than cooking-up a new product then seeing it succeed in the marketplace. But it can also be a gruelling process – especially when you think that developing and launching a product can make or break a small business, especially a start-up.

Since launching the brand almost 25 years ago, we continue to go through a stringent process with every product we release. Often, the types of products we launch are determined by what our consumers are asking for – especially when it comes to new flavours within our baby and toddler meal ranges. When we have an idea, we then examine the market and look at whether there is a need for this particular product.

This is how I do market research

Quantitative research in the form of wide scale surveys amongst our target audience provide us with statistical information to help suss out our audience and make more informed decisions about how to progress.

We have built up a large following of loyal, engaged mums and they love to be involved in product development. The great thing about tapping into our followers is that they are honest; if they don’t like an idea, we’ll know about it! This is priceless when we are working in such a competitive environment. We combine this with focus-groups with mums. I also headline at Britain’s biggest baby shows, and this is a fantastic environment to share our ideas with mums who already buy into the brand and those that don’t.

This is how I bring the product to life

Despite how much I might like a product idea, consumer feedback plus a full competitor and market evaluation will determine whether it sinks or swims.

When we have a good understanding of the most sought after product or products, I will spend countless hours in my kitchen making the meals the best they can be in terms of quality of ingredients and taste. That means bringing in my biggest critics – panels of babies and toddlers. Their verdict is the one which counts the most – if they like it, mum is happy too. I also visit nurseries and baby / toddler groups to run my taste tests as it’s important to pit my meals against the fussiest of eaters.

My children (now in their twenties) can also be found loitering in the kitchen when I’m developing new products – since day dot, they’ve always been my chief taste testers.

Once I have a product that everyone is happy with (which means packing in up to three of a child’s 5-a-day), I then take my kitchen samples to my chosen food manufacturer and work with them to produce a version that can be replicated on mass without compromising on taste, quality and nutritional balance – all whilst ensuring we make a profit margin. As a leader in the field of children’s food, I have strict rules on nutritional guidelines.

This is how I do packaging development

We design our packaging alongside the food development phase. If we are adding a new product to a range, we have a creative template that we work to. Excitingly, we have undergone a completed brand refresh to further strengthen our emotional connection with mums. The new visual identity, packaging and marketing materials give the brand more personality and brings it up to date, ensuring it appeals to modern day mums.

They love the fact that our meals are inspired by my recipe books, so the new branding brings our “just like you’d make at home” messaging to life. Of course, it’s all well and good making the packaging look attractive and appealing, but it’s essential to follow legal guidelines for your packaging. We work with our manufacturers on this.

This is how I do my second phase testing and retailer buy-in

Once we have a product and packaging we are happy with, the final product goes back to consumer testing. At this early stage prior to production, we also engage with key bloggers and media to secure their feedback, and most importantly retail buyers. It is the buyers who will ultimately determine whether our product gets shelf space, so we only ever go to them with a product we have 100 per cent belief in. Blind tastings are a great way of showing just how well our delicious tasting developments fare against our competitors.

Depending on the feedback, we sometimes end up adjusting products and re-testing them with our audience two or three times. Although, having spent over two decades in producing recipes, they tend to receive a great response and it’s usually the fact I’m such a perfectionist that products are so rigorously tested.

This is how I prepare for launch

With an all-round thumbs up and confirmed listings in place, the new challenge is letting your target audience know the product exists. We don’t have the marketing budgets of major global brands, but what we do have is credibility and a name that mums trust, so we leverage this to market our products. That ranges from sharing news of our new arrivals via our strong digital platforms to securing press reviews and editorial coverage.

PR also works hard for us to keep our brand front of mind with parents. I regularly commentate within the media on health and food issues and frequently write for parenting, lifestyle and national press. This in turn encourages mums to visit our site where we have lots of news about our products.

These are my tips for marketing your product:

- Don’t just engage with the media and bloggers once a product has been launched. Connect with the right contacts early on and make them a part of the development of your product. Taking them on the journey with you will help create a rapport which could be beneficial.

- Focus your marketing efforts on key outlets relevant to your product. Our products are particularly relevant with parenting media, mummy bloggers and nursery media and early year’s organisations, so we spend a lot of time engaging with them.

- While social networking is a big investment in time, it’s the best way to start getting exposure for a new brand or product – especially if you are a start-up. Research your audience - find out where they are, what they like to talk about and the main influencers.

- Be careful at the beginning not to spread yourself too thin. Decide on your voice and which topics you’ll become an expert in, and choose one social network to focus on.

- It isn’t enough to simply measure your marketing efforts by ‘likes’ or ‘followers’. Strive for constant engagement with your audience by entertaining and rewarding them. Content that gives value to your audience could provide a return of important customer data which you can then use for regular brand communication.

Mumpreneur (published by Vermillion and sponsored by Direct Line for Business) is out on 12th February 2015. Pre-order your copy now.  Find out more about Annabel at her website, or connect on Twitter and Facebook.