Put Marilyn Raymond in the frozen foods section of your average grocery store and where you see chicken pot-pies, frozen pizza and burritos, she sees the world – condensed and frozen, of course.
From the healthy eater to the comfort food consumer to the taste adventure-seeker, you've got the full spectrum of what people eat and how they live. But just when you think the frozen food makers have all the fronts covered, Raymond, senior partner and managing director for Ann Arbor's NewProductWorks, will point out the gaps. Frozen snacks, for example, aren't anywhere near as diverse. What about health-conscious snacks? Frozen snacks for the adventurous soul?
The world is full of opportunities for innovation if you know where to look. That's the premise driving NewProductWorks, a division of the Ann Arbor consulting firm Arbor Strategy Group.
And NewProductWorks makes sure its clients don't have to look far. The company's offices at 680 State Circle are also home to a collection of more than 110,000 consumer goods – from salad dressing to energy drinks to toothpaste - arranged in sections and aisles on grocery store shelves.
Arbor Strategy Group bought the original 70,000-piece collection from marketing guru Robert McMath in 2001 and merged it with ASG's consulting practice to form NewProduct Works.
Timing is everything
Each item a niche being filled – 30 years worth of innovation. There's also a small display that highlights some of the more spectacular flops in marketing, like Toaster Eggs frozen "pre-cooked egg products" or Clairol "Touch of Yogurt" shampoo.
Some products are just ahead of their time. Richard Simmons Salad Spray flopped when it was introduced as a way to encourage healthier salad dressing portions in 1989. But by 2006, when Wishbone introduced its spray-on salad dressing - Salad Spritzers – consumers were apparently ready to quit drowning their lettuce. In 2007 Ken's Foods followed suit with the Ken's Lite Accents line of spray-on dressings. A trend was born.
"I think what we try to attract is lessons learned from marketplace," said Raymond. "We have successful products and we have products that, if you want to call them failures, I guess that's the opposite of success. I'd also say they paved the way for someone else to be trailblazers."
Learning from the past
The collection isn't open to the public, but it's open by arrangement for research, and used extensively to help clients with new product development.
Almost half of ASG's client base is in the Fortune 1,000, including food industry biggies like Kraft, Dole and Kellogg. Walk into a grocery store, pull any product off the shelf and chances are NewProductWorks has worked with the company that makes it.
A database of willing consumers – people who've filled out a brief online registration form – provides panelists whenever a client wants firsthand feedback on a product or the preferences or habits of a certain demographic.
Arbor Strategy Group ended up in Ann Arbor somewhat by chance – owner Phil Roos lived here and liked it. But Raymond says it's turned out to be a great venue – in the same time zone as the many consumer package goods companies in New Jersey and Connecticut, four hours from Chicago and the companies there, and close to a major airport. Between the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor's foodie community there's always an expert nearby.
Zingerman's Coffee Company president Allen Leibowitz got a firsthand look at what Arbor Strategy group does when the company called on him to share a Zingerman's point of view with a coffee industry client. He came away impressed by ASG's professionalism and the depth of the work it does for its clients.
"They've got a really good process, a great way of modeling things and they've got that product library that's unparalleled," Leibowitz said. "They were very meticulous in how they researched markets for these people. If I were that customer I can't imagine how thrilled I must be to work with them."
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to metromode and Concentrate. Amy's previous feature was, Coworking: Solo But not Alone.
Checking Out the Product at New Product Works-Ann Arbor
MMMM. Toaster Eggs. Who Could've Resisted???-New Product Works Ann Arbor
Just a Sample of all the Beverages at New Product Works-Ann Arbor
Richard Simmons Salad Spritzer was a Failure that was Brought Back to Light by Wishbone-New Product Works Ann Arbor
Workers can get Enveloped by the Products at New Product Works with Workspaces on the Showroom Floor-New Product Works Ann Arbor
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He likes blueberry pie.
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