Interview with an Innovator

Food Innovation Solutions’ Mike Faers: ‘The food industry has forgotten how to innovate’

The expert in product and concept development calls out companies like Kellogg for timidity, while advocating a complete rethink of the route from concept to market.

23 March 2018

Faers on Paper – CV

  • Started out as a chef in restaurant kitchens, most notably Le Gavroche
  • Worked as development director for the Good Food Group, Daniels Chilled Foods and The Rannoch Group, before joining McDonald’s as head of food for Northern Europe
  • Founded his own product and concept development company, Food Innovation Solutions, in 2010

“Product development as an innovation has been a long, slow process over the last 10 years. That process is no longer fit for purpose.” It’s a big, bold statement, but one Mike Faers stands behind. According to the managing director of Food Innovation Solutions, companies have become accustomed to relying on tools like Stage-gate to get from idea to launch, but the reality is these plodding (albeit methodical) ways of working are outmoded and outdated.

“The game will be over by the time you’ve figured it out,” he says, instead advocating rapid conceptualisation and prototyping to keep up with today’s consumers, who are programmed to want speedy solutions by our fast-paced modern world.

It’s one of many changes Faers has noticed since he first started in NPD more than two decades ago. Working across retail and foodservice, he has been involved in Marks & Spencer ready meals and strategy work with Tesco, as well as new restaurant concepts like Jan, a Clapham eatery specialising in flavours from the Caspian.

As someone whose business is devoted to coming up with clever new ways to capture consumer trends in an appetising package, you can bet he’s got a lot to say on the subject of what’s hot and what’s not in the world of food innovation.


I’ve always had an interest in food science. There was a guy called Harold McGee and he’d written a book called On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen. Basically, it was around what happens to food from a science point of view, and it was really the birth of molecular gastronomy, but no one called it that, it didn’t have a fancy name and it wasn’t trendy or fashionable. It was just about how you could use science to create new and unique food experiences.

People get embarrassed and afraid of failure; I actually embrace failure. I think it’s the best way you can ever learn. For me, embracing failure is only a stepping stone to success.

What you don’t want to do is be completely consumer driven, because consumers are a bit dull and they only tell you what they know. So you need to use that as a directional tool and as one input to that creative process, but the creative process is what you have to own and what you have to drive within your organisation if you want to deliver meaningful innovation.

We will use [consumer research] as one of five or six inputs when creating a strategic plan or a strategic point of view. It is not the driver. Where businesses get it wrong is they use consumers as the single biggest driver of their decision-making. Absolutely wrong. That’s not the way to do it, it should be one input of several. The others being trends work, what’s going on in the industry, what’s going on in adjacent industries, what’s going on in other countries and markets that could be relevant over here. So you’re using that depth of knowledge and that depth of expertise to come to an informed opinion.

We launched a business called Soft Republic for Unilever in Spitalfields as a pop-up, which was based on soft ice cream. So we asked consumers during that process, what do you think about when you think of soft ice cream? And it’s everything you’d expect: beach, 99 cone chocolate flake, the strawberry and raspberry sauce, chocolate sauce, screwballs, all that sort of thing. And there’s a massive amount of nostalgia with it… so how do we use that nostalgia positively, to create something new and different? The cone is loved, but how can we innovate around the cone?... If I’d have just listened to the customers, I’d have just ended up with some different sprinkles on a cone. But if I listen to customers and then overlay our expertise, our trends insight work, etc., then we end up with Soft Republic.

Thai food in M&S must have been launched six times before it kind of stuck and before it kind of worked. When you look at that, you know the products aren’t that different, so what was the difference? The difference in that example was the consumer acceptance of authentic Thai food versus a green Thai curry from a freezer. And Mexican is the same. So cuisines I think are a really good example of pace and timing and acceptance.

There is an element of the distance you stretch from the core accepted norm. I stretched New Covent Garden from soup into porridge, into risottos, into sauces, into a few other things, because they were all fairly close to what soup is and therefore the brand has credibility to play in that area. But if I’d taken that brand and stretched into desserts – we would have a massively difficult job convincing consumers we were good at creating indulgent desserts when we’re a healthy soup brand!

Businesses now primarily are seeking a higher, faster return on innovation, and it leads them into two behaviours: one is, ‘we will just twist on what we do,’ be it varietals of Heinz tomato ketchup, sized convenience bottles, etc… And that I would argue is not innovation, that is just evolution.

Kellogg in my opinion are not an innovative company, because they own breakfast. They own the breakfast occasion, yet they have not innovated around it. All they do is put another varietal of Special K out with a different berry in. At the end of the day, that isn’t innovation, it’s not going to deliver what the consumer expects from an innovative company. It takes breakfast biscuits, it takes skyr [an Icelandic cultured dairy product] drinks.

The best time to innovate is when you’re at most successful. The other thing people tend to get wrong is they innovate when times are hard, thinking that innovation is going to be the solution to their problem – well, sometimes it can be, but often it’s not. The time to innovate is when you’re at the peak of your success, because that’s when you’ve got the time to do it, you’ve got the capital to invest in new. People like Dyson, people like Apple, that’s their philosophy, that’s their mentality.

Health of the planet, health of us as humans, are the two biggest subjects I think that are going to impact and continue to impact what we do and how we think. It’s such a blunt tool to say ‘health’ and ‘wellness’; it’s meaningless, because how do you boil that ocean? So you’ve really got to look at the subtleties of what does health really mean – by consumer segmentation, by sector, by how is that relevant to what you’re doing. And I think this is one of the key challenges that we have.

Every time I do a panel on health, consumers will tell me they behave in a certain way. And then I’ll walk into a KFC or a QSR operation and I will witness consumers behaving in the opposite way. Self-perception of health is very, very different from the actual behaviour. So we use a lot of techniques to get underneath the skin of real behaviour and real views, rather than claimed behaviour.

For every trend, there is an anti-trend. And I am always fascinated by what the anti-trend is. So that is the overindulgent, the dude food, that ‘my god I just need to spoil myself.’ That mindset, the further you go down the macro trend of health, the more and more you’re going to see theses curative spikes of anti-trends coming through. Those are where you can have some very, very exciting, small, tactical wins in your product portfolio for innovation.

We’ve kind of been through the era of superfoods, I think we’re going to enter the age of functional, naturalised foods – a cross between food and medicine, shall we say. So you’re taking a very active and proactive approach to preventatively keeping you healthy body healthy… If you look in the US, you can see an awful lot coming round the corner with customised nutrition and DNA.

The meal kits that are out there, they’re all okay, but none of them really do it really well… If you’re talking about creating that sort of experience, then you’ve got to be looking at the senses, you’ve got to be looking at the music you put on the CD or you download an app – if you’re having Italian food you’ve got Tosca playing in the background.

What happens if you’ve figured a way to create an emotional result as well as a great physical result? You open up a completely different area of product design and product development.

Consumers are no longer going at a fairly sedate pace. And that’s obviously all to do with the technical age we live in, and that ability to access whatever they want, whenever they want… That is the expectation of your younger mind-set consumer.

The food industry has forgotten how to innovate. Thirty years of meat manufacturing have pretty much got rid of that capability and that skill. What it has done is created a bottom end of that manufacturing marketplace – creative providers, entrepreneurs – coming through… How do those big players regain that entrepreneurial spirit, thinking and challenge within their businesses?

Innovation is so much more than product design. Innovation is about communication with consumers.

I do spent quite a lot of my time telling people not to do stuff… And that could be for a variety of reasons. The product is not right, not creative enough, there’s no channel strategy behind it on how to do it, there’s not manufacturing capability, pricing is way out – there’s lot of different reasons. Some are fixable, some are not.

Do we need 13 different lasagnes, of which 11 are size variants and one is vegetarian and one is a luxury version? Well, probably not, but you might need six, of which one is vegan, one is a vegetarian interesting option or reduced meat, one is going to be gluten free, etc. So rather than just flogging more of the same in different sizes and different premiumisation tiers – good, better, best – actually you’re going to have to get broader and more diverse to meet those needs that are emerging.

I’m quite a big fan of seaweed. I’m a big fan of it in so much as what it can do. I’m a big fan of it in terms of it’s fairly sustainable. I’m a big fan of it in terms of its health and nutrient benefits. And also I’m a big fan of it because of its flavour, its ability to develop flavour.

We’ve been talking about insects, entomophagy, for a long time, and it’s sort of gone through the gimmicky phase now. And I would say that when I’m talking about flours and using ingredients and protein substitutes and so on, using insects makes an awful lot of sense. If you think about how it takes two years to grow a cow – and from an exhaust emissions point of view they’re not particularly good. You will see less consumption of expensive protein and more consumption of inexpensive, more sustainable proteins for the planet.

Dehydrated powders of fresh fruits and vegetables, wow, there are some stunning flavours going on there… if you do this in a really clever, smart way, wow, the intensity. It’s the finishing and the seasoning and the impact you can get from some of these things that you haven’t seen before.

I think there’s a big translation to come across from the world of fine dining into the world of retail, mainstream products. And I don’t mean at the silly end, I mean some of those technologies and processes that give us some really interesting stuff to deal with. It’s dynamic contrasts, the reason we love salted caramel… It’s the texture differences…

Waste is one of the massive issues that innovation needs to be put behind. Shelf-life extension, food safety – all these things are absolutely critical.

The whole format of food is something that will change over the next decade. That is for sure. The only reason it hasn’t changed now is because we’ve invested billions in factories that make square, rectangle, CPET trays of product. But if you were being true to consumers, being true to the trends, that is going to change.

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