Neither revolutionary packaging nor daring new formats most excited consumers last year. Instead, it was the more subtle extensions to their favourite brands that grabbed their attention. Simon Mowbray reports on the Top 50 product launches in 2003 as voted for by sweet-toothed shoppers

Some things in grocery appear to be constant - Andrex is the nation’s top selling toilet roll, Nescafé dominates hot beverages and few favourites are more certain of a number one spot in the annual sales charts than Walkers in the bagged snacks arena.
With this in mind, the mantra for new products aiming to make their mark against such giant brands would appear to be “innovation, innovation, innovation”.
But should it be? New findings from Cambridge Market Research show that consumers, far from being excited by groundbreaking new packaging or formats, often appear to be most impressed by subtle tweaks to age-old favourites.
The researcher, through its Fast Foodfax panel of human guinea pigs tested more than 3,000 new products picked up in UK supermarkets last year, covering no fewer than 89 categories. The panel members rated products across 10 key performance measures. Yet, instead of giving gold stars to the market’s seemingly most innovative newcomers, most chose variations of old themes as their favourite launches of 2003.
It is then, perhaps, not that surprising to find that Wall’s Viennetta Selection Brownie variant was voted the year’s best new product, scoring a maximum 50 points out of 50 with Foodfax consumers. Although it tied with three other products, it came top of the pile because most of the consumers taking part in the survey said they would be prepared buy it in the future.
In fact, take a look down the rest of the top 10 and the picture of remarkable familiarity continues with new twists on established favourites appearing to be very much the order of the day.
Paul Beresford, managing director of Cambridge Market Research, says 2003 now appears to have been the year of “back to basics” for many consumers as they looked for comfort in troubled times as Britain waged war in Iraq and the threat of international terrorism loomed large.
“Perhaps it is a reflection of the (product) development cycle, or of the economic and political uncertainties of the year, but our respondents seemed more at home with traditional, comfortable food in 2003,” says Beresford. “The top 10 illustrates this. For example, Wall’s Viennetta has been a freezer standby for more than 20 years, while Penguin is a stalwart of the biscuit market.”
Further indicators of a return to more conservative tastes, he adds, is the revival in traditional foods like savoury pies, the strong performance of convenient forms of chips and roast potatoes and the successful extension of long-established brands like Lyle’s Golden Syrup and Bisto.
Delving further, it would also appear that the ongoing debate over obesity is having less of an impact on consumer thinking than currently feared by the trade following a barrage of high profile criticism in the consumer press.
For no fewer than 63% of the products making it into Cambridge’s Top 100 new launches were sweet-based.
Only in frozen did the success rate of sweet products fall below 60%.
However, it would appear one of the toughest battles for product supremacy is currently being waged in the own label arena, which accounted for a 30% share of Cambridge’s list.
But the warning to those chains that already have impressive own label sales is clear - quality, or sometimes the lack of it, is still very closely monitored by consumers and the opportunities for manufacturers looking to make their mark are clear.
The good news for Morrisons as it enters a brave new world following the takeover of Safeway is that its own label offering is more than holding its own against the big boys, and even making inroads.
In terms of the number of entries into the overall Top 100, Morrisons beat both Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer, and its strike rate was also higher than both Tesco and Asda as almost one in three of the Morrisons products selected for testing made it onto the list. That compared with just one in five successes for Britain’s biggest two grocers.
Says Beresford: “Overall, own label share of the Top 100 strengthened in 2003, but the grip of the major multiples weakened. It is clear that the publicity surrounding Morrisons’ acquisition of Safeway, coupled with a steady move of stores into the south, has raised its profile and boosted ratings for its new products.”
However, Cambridge’s list is unlikely to make pleasant reading for Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer. Compared with 2002, Sainsbury suffered a fall in the number of products deemed to be suitable for trial on the basis of being new and innovative (down from 41 in 2002 to 28), with just three making it into the Top 100.
The downturn in fortunes was even more severe for Marks and Spencer which, as Beresford points out, was “unassailable as the prime innovator in foods through the 1980s and 1990s” .
The retailer has come under severe pressure from premium ranges in multiples. Beresford adds: “Although we tested 25 of their products last year, only three made it into the Top 100, with their highest entry at only number 85 (an Italian range of chilled dips). This is less than half the number of entries it achieved in 2001.”
Meanwhile, back in the branded arena, Nestlé scored the highest number of entries in the Top 100 as products such as Kit Kat Kubes, Sveltesse potted desserts and Double Cream Chocolate Cake helped it secure eight name checks. But top honours, says Beresford, must still go to Wall’s which had a perfect conversion rate into the Top 100 of seven out of seven products tested.
Despite this apparent conservatism in 2003, however, Beresford believes this should not disguise fundamental changes in consumers’ attitudes that create opportunities for innovation in 2004.
He cites the switch into premium brands, well illustrated by the major retailers which “continue to successfully segment the offer”.
Even though sweet products continue to dominate the Top 100, he believes that consumers are clearly getting the wider health message.
“They are becoming increasingly open to next generation concepts in vegetarian foods, the clean ingredient lists of Free From and the functional benefits delivered by brands like Flora Pro-activ and Benecol.
“And we should not forget that although the major new ethnic tastes might already have been adopted, the consumer still seeks and demands new taste sensations. It is just that finding the winning formula gets ever more difficult.”