It takes 18-24 months for “Flavor Gurus” at Ben & Jerry’s “Flavor Lab” to create a new flavor. In their civilian lives, all the gurus are serious foodies–some are former restaurant chefs, others are chemists–but in the Flavor Lab they’re also required to be futurists, anticipating which ice cream flavors consumers will want two years hence.
How they get there is a complex process. There are numerous stakeholders, shocking amounts of data, and several distinct steps. Here’s a look at two of them toward the earlier stages–long before my favorite part, the taste testing, begins.
Step 1: Binging on inspiration
In an initial conceptualization phase, Flavor Gurus set themselves a daunting task: to draw up a list of about 200 potential new flavors. To do that they consume (sometimes literally) dozens of sources on food trends, researching the latest gustatory innovations that may be market ready, or almost market ready. The team might embark on a “trend trek,” traveling to another city to experience not just its ice cream but its food and drinking culture overall. They’ll visit the newest restaurants and try the latest cocktails, taking field notes and talking things through. Or the Gurus might comb through food blogs and magazines hunting for inspiration.
On a recent visit to the Flavor Lab, in Vermont, I met a Guru named Eric who told me he regularly trawls a website called Tasting Table, which publishes menus from new restaurants all across America. Sarah, a relatively new Flavor Guru, finds Instagram a useful tool for spotting trends populating social feeds, including giant milkshakes with all kinds of crazy toppings. For other Gurus, mainstays like Bon Appétit or Food & Wine are essential reads.
All this consumption lets Gurus spot up-and-coming flavor profiles, combinations, preparations, and textures that deserve to be included on the list. But since the entire innovation cycle can take almost two years altogether, the Ben & Jerry’s team needs to think collectively like futurists–generating ideas that will hopefully be reaching peak popularity when the flavor actually hits shelves.
This conceptualization stage is actually common to many creative processes, though, and the forward-thinking challenge isn’t unique to ice-cream development. Engaging with multiple sources of input gives you the mental material you need to assemble high-quality ideas–and not just about things that can work right now, but what could succeed further down the road.
Step 2: An ice cream Hunger Games
Ben & Jerry’s tastemakers don’t just rely on their own judgment, though. After assembling a couple hundred ideas, the Gurus then turn to a surprisingly low-tech yet crucial source in order to whittle them down: email surveys. Close to 200 flavor possibilities enter the “reduction” stage. Only about 15 make it through.
The team sends out a short survey to a representative slice of its massive email list of ice cream enthusiasts. The survey is extremely straightforward; it consists of a one-sentence description of each of the 200 flavors, followed by the same two questions apiece:
- How likely are you to buy this flavor?
- How unique is this flavor?
Respondents are asked to rank their answers on a five-point scale. According to the Flavor Gurus, the goal is to zero in on flavors that are both familiar and novel. Lean too much to one side, and the Ben & Jerry’s brand of “yummy and interesting” can suffer.
“I think if you look at what most people want, it’s vanilla ice cream with brownies and caramel, or chocolate ice cream flavors with cookies and caramel,” a Flavor Guru named Dena told me. “Those are always at the top, and we love to make ice creams with caramel and brownies,” she admits. But if the Gurus made only caramel and brownie ice cream, things would get old pretty quickly.
As Dena put it, “A coffee flavor is never going to sell as well as a caramel flavor is, but how many caramel flavors do we need?” The second question, “How unique is the flavor?” helps Gurus ensure they’re maintaining enough novelty in the flavor pool. Based on the survey data, the team settles on the 15 flavors they believe have the ideal balance of novelty and familiarity.
This is the reduction step, and it’s likewise a key part of many creative processes. To generate ideas that stick, you need to go from a wide-ranging list of plausible ideas to a data-driven subset of the ones that have the strongest likelihood of succeeding, based on whatever metrics for success you’ve outlined. For many creatives, this early testing can be scary since it creates the risk of criticism and rejection. But it’s often the only way to predict success, especially when you’re trying to think months or even years down the road.
On my way out of the Ben & Jerry’s headquarters, the Flavor Gurus let me try a flavor that never made it to market: dill pickle sorbet.
It was delicious. I don’t mean that it was adequate, or okay, or “interesting.” I mean it was go-back-for-second-and-thirds-delicious. My mouth is watering just writing about it. Dill pickle sorbet, I was told, was a tasty idea (certainly unique), but the Gurus felt that the vast majority of customers wouldn’t buy a pickle-flavored dessert. Nevertheless, at least one ultra-hipster New York City restaurant has since rolled out just such a flavor, prompting Food & Wine to muse last April that “2018 may be the year of the pickle.”
Did the Flavor Gurus at Ben & Jerry’s bet wrong? Not necessarily. It remains to be seen whether the Instagram fanfare around dill pickle soft-serve will translate into a mass-market consumer trend. Indeed, the beauty of the dynamic that the conceptualization and the reduction stages create is that it gives Flavor Gurus insight into what might be around the corner–as well as a chance to decide whether to act on it. The Gurus saw pickle ice cream coming, but made up their minds not to sell it themselves. Their approach perfectly balances boundless creative inquisitiveness with clear-headed assessments of popular appeal.
To my dismay, but to most people’s relief, that’s the reason you won’t find Ben & Jerry’s dill pickle sorbet in your local freezer aisle this summer.
This article is adapted with permission from The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.