Interview with an Innovator

Marks and Spencer’s Gurdeep Loyal: ‘The most exciting thing about fermentation is it opens up a load of flavours’

The head of trends talks about the supermarket’s innovation strategies, their focus on semi-scratch cooking and frozen, and how consumers are starting to embrace hyper-regionality.

24 January 2020
fermentedfibreflexitarianfrozengut healthNPDplant-based

Loyal on paper:

  • Spent eight years as marketing manager at Innocent Drinks, helping to grow the then fledgling start-up into one of the world’s leading beverage companies.
  • Became marketing manager of Harrods’ food halls and restaurants in 2015, playing a key role in the creation of their ‘taste revolution’ concept.
  • Joined Marks and Spencer in 2019 as head of trends, a role that includes mapping out future innovation strategies and discovering new and upcoming trends.

Gurdeep Loyal lives for food. Growing up in what he describes as an adventurous family whose primary reason for travelling was to experience the food, Marks and Spencer’s (M&S) head of trends learned to look for, and appreciate, the very latest and most exciting things to eat from a very early age.

After obtaining a degree from the University of Bristol, Loyal spent eight years at Innocent Drinks as a marketing manager, growing the brand as part of what was then a small team of “hardcore foodies”. He later took a year’s sabbatical to travel the world and discover as many different cuisines as he could.

This journey truly cemented the discovery of food as Loyal’s calling in life and, after returning to London, he joined Harrods as their lead marketing manager, working with the institution’s 150 chefs to push the boundaries of consumer perception with everyday food and drink.

The role of head of trends at M&S followed in 2019, with Loyal and his team of innovators eating their way around the world, predicting UK consumer trends and helping to keep the supermarket’s flexible food strategies on the right track.  

“Effectively, we’re helping to decide what the nation eats,” Loyal tells Food Spark. “It’s a huge responsibility but it’s so exiting – it’s my passion.”

“With today’s consumer well-travelled and adventurous with food, it’s up to us to understand that and to be half a step ahead of them, trying to anticipate what they might want soon.”

Here, Loyal tells Tom Gatehouse about the supermarket’s innovation in the health and wellness realm, discusses the evolving consumer palette and explains why trends that might not be “sexy and interesting” are still extremely important. 

I work day-to-day with the product development team and what we do, as a team, is drive the future thinking at M&S. We’re here to drive the innovation agenda, across all categories, to make sure we’re on-trend today and also in five to ten years’ time.

We have an internal trends library which we look after and we direct the strategic thinking. We do a lot of concept testing and workshops and, as M&S prides itself on innovating, with taste at the forefront, a lot of what we do is scour the globe for what taste benchmarks are coming through.

Strategically, a lot of our focus is on freshness and health right now while also being relevant to families. Health is one of the things that is absolutely at the forefront of what we’re doing and we recently led a large piece of work that defines where we want our health direction to go for the next two to five years. We’ve also conducted extensive customer research as part of that.

What we found with the research is that consumers see health as extremely personal and that they manage their nutritional health in their own way in terms of what’s important to them or their family. That could be plant-based eating, intermittent fasting, following a certain diet or choosing to be gluten or dairy free.

We’re constantly looking at ways to create delicious tasting foods that never compromise on flavour and offer consumers options across this diverse spectrum of managing health. We’ve actually released a range of new products this month, with particular focus on freshness and clean label, such as our amazing meal pots that are packed full of vegetables and wholegrains with punchy vibrant flavours.

We’ve recently done a whole load of innovation with our Plant Kitchen range. We’ve just launched a no chicken kiev and we have a new range called Hidden Veggies for consumers who might not be looking to cut out meat altogether but want to adopt a more flexitarian approach.

Gut health is huge for consumers right now and lots of what we’re doing includes this trend. It’s really getting traction with people and I think there will be a big focus on fibre going forward. People are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of having a high-fibre diet and we’ll be looking to pioneer new innovation with this evolving trend.

We also have a big focus on semi-scratch cooking. We know customers want to be inspired with what to cook for dinner in the evening and a large proportion of consumers don’t know what they’re going to cook until ten minutes before they go to a store. So, we’re looking to have a range of delicious hacks and quick cook options for the semi-scratch cook.

Another real focus for us is frozen. We know that there’s been a complete revaluation in customers’ eyes with frozen and now people are looking at the freezer as an extension of their kitchen pantry, which is really exciting. We know it’s also a good way of reducing food waste and so there’s a lot of work we’re doing in this area to drive the future frozen food agenda.

There are a lot of macro factors driving health trends. People are living a lot longer than they used to and consumers are now very much in tune with the fact that if you’re going to live longer, you need to have a high quality and very active life.

There’s a complete blurring of meals in everyday life. People are eating on-the-go so much more and they’re realising that, to have a high-quality life, health has to be number one.

One of the things that I think is really interesting is that one of the most important concerns that consumers have these days is mental wellbeing. The science seems to suggest that there is a direct link and, nowadays, people know that you are what you eat, and that nutrition is key to that.

We’re looking a lot at ferments, things like kimchee and krauts. The most exciting thing about fermentation is that it opens up a whole load of flavours that didn’t exist before. We have our innovation chefs here at M&S and we’re constantly experimenting with ferments because it is unlocking a whole spectrum of flavours that haven’t really existed. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll start to see some of our ranges incorporating some of those new flavours.

People are definitely getting more adventurous with their taste palates. And, through that, people are developing a taste for sour, for bitter and are in tune with umami and what that can add.

As a retailer, we have to keep up with expectations. People are eating new things at restaurants more regularly and are travelling a lot more, so what we have to do is understand where on the trend curve things lie and when we might start to bring them in.

We are constantly out and about in London and we often take trips abroad to investigate trends, upcoming or otherwise. We recently took an inspiration trip to LA, Portland and San Francisco which was really inspiring for us in terms of what’s happening on the restaurant scene over there and how they’re responding to health trends (in LA in particular).

There was a craft beer festival in Portland when we were there, and it was a great example of how trends that we’re seeing in areas of food are actually playing out everywhere. They had the most amazing salads and there was so much amazing innovation with botanicals and flavours such as grapefruit and mango and lychee. And it was all coming through craft beer.

The farmers market in Portland was amazingly inspirational. We tried things like pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid) and cherryums (a cross between a cherry and a plum) and things I’ve never even heard of. Not to say we’re about to launch these into M&S straight away, but these are the kind of trips and experiences that are so important to us.

There’s been a huge increase in Filipino and Sri Lankan cuisines in London, and I think people are becoming much more in tune with regionality and not thinking in terms of just Indian and Italian. And then there’s hyper regionality, things that are made in specific villages and specific pasta shapes. It’s really exciting.

One of the things I’m really passionate about is fine patisserie. There’s lots of exciting things happening in the patisserie world with people being adventurous with flavours and formats.

Plant-based will probably be a much bigger part of our overall portfolio in the future. We’re looking at lots of new proteins and what cuisines are creating the best vegan and vegetarian foods. That includes flavours from Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Asia and even from Nordic countries.

A lot of what we’re doing in this area is making it really easy to get your five a day. It’s still something that we know customers don’t find that easy. With the busy lifestyles people lead, they want quick, convenient solutions. It’s not especially sexy and interesting but it’s what consumers are looking for.

We don’t think as vegan and vegetarian as a separate entity anymore, it’s very much engrained into all of the thinking that we’re doing. That’s a really interesting shift. It’s in our thinking for all our ranges and at the heart of our product development.

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