Chinese Chicken Strips – Roasting in Retail Ethnography

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May 12, 2005
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By Rupa Ranganathan, Ethnic Strategist, Strategic Research Institute

www.srinstitute.com


Carol Hymowitz wrote in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week: “On a recent evening stroll, James Rice, a vice president at Tyson Foods and the head of its China operations, wandered into a narrow alley, drawn by the pungent scent of spices coming from a food vendors stall. The vendor was selling skewers of barbecued lamb coated with cumin, a popular evening snack here. That detour gave Mr. Rice the idea for a new food product: cumin-flavored chicken strips.”


Within a few weeks of Mr. Rice’s visit to the market, Tyson’s R&D department had produced a new recipe and the company began testing it. Chinese consumers gave it a whopping 90 percent approval rating.


James Rice is to be lauded for his ability to glean the right flavor from a plethora of ingredients used by the Chinese food-stall vendors and to creatively bring it right into the context of his product lines. His casual market visit is an excellent example of ethnographic observation and retail research at a very grassroots level.


It could not have been accomplished without enlightened risk-taking and the support of senior management. Numerous brand executives would surely have strolled into this very street and also shared the same olfactory experience as James Rice without translating it into an idea for a solid product launch.


With competition hotting up in China and elsewhere, brand teams must break many templates to find success, not only in international markets, but back home in the United States with global citizens who now call America their home.


Moderator’s Comment: What lessons are there to be learned for CPG companies and retailers from the story behind Tyson’s cumin-flavored chicken strips?
Was the Tyson story unusual in terms of how product ideas are formulated? What about the speed with which the product came to market?

Rupa Ranganathan – Moderator

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12 Comments on "Chinese Chicken Strips – Roasting in Retail Ethnography"


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Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 9 months ago
I swear no one’s ever had a good idea while at work. We’re too busy to think, we’re protecting silos, we’re afraid of rejection, embarrassment and being wrong. We have a ‘mind-set’ and new ideas are dis-set-ling. We all have to admit our very best ideas and insights come when we’re not trying to have one – in other words when we get out of our mind’s way. Innovation is born walking down a fairway (or alley in Rice’s case), on a run, relaxing on the beach, in the shower. We produce more ideas while we’re sleeping than we do at work. So one lesson is that we have to look at the neuroscience that explains that universal phenomenon and learn how to think differently if we want to access the breakthrough ideas that whisp about in the ether. To me the real question is ‘what if it had been a Tyson shipping clerk instead of a vice-president who discovered that wonderful scent and taste?’ Would we have a new product on the market today?… Read more »
Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 9 months ago

It sounds like there were many things done very well in this example, starting with James Rice’s ability to sense a business opportunity to his company’s embracing the idea and bringing it to market so quickly and well. Contrast this with so many companies that are so centrally and rigidly managed that this type of entrepreneurial exercise would be unheard of.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 9 months ago

I think this is done quite a bit in good companies. It’s a case of finding good people, like Rice, and letting them follow their passion. That also means not multi-tasking people to death so that they feel like they have to be in the office to get “things” done. So, it’s investment both in good people and a good support team. It’s not cheap, and it requires trust from upper management. The best marketers, people with passion, live and breathe their business, and are constantly seeking out new ideas and asking opinions of people with whom they come into contact–from their barber to the ticket taker at the movies. Don’t know exactly how fast the Tyson team got the product out, but obviously speed to market is a big issue.

David Morse
Guest
David Morse
15 years 9 months ago

I’m a strong believer in ethnographic research. We do a lot of it for our clients, and it’s amazing how ideas have a tendency to just come up. Things you would never have thought to even ask about in a focus group.

Legend has it that Arm & Hammer learned while doing ethnographic research that people were putting their baking soda product in refrigerators. Crazy, but they promoted the idea, and now few fridges are without it. I’m not sure if that’s just an urban legend, but I’ve seen that kind of thing happen all the time. Walking around, going into neighborhoods and watching people at home can lead to all kinds of great insights.

Eva A. May
Guest
Eva A. May
15 years 9 months ago

I tried to participate in the poll, but didn’t like any of the responses except for “Other.” What works for Church’s, and for successful food product and services companies in the diverse marketplace today, is an openness to try new things. Just because something isn’t popular with the “general market” or in the US doesn’t mean it can’t be hugely successful. Companies just have to research out taste or flavor preferences among target consumers, check out competition, prepare test recipes and products, and position their new line or extension with just as much precision as they do for the general market. If they are willing to do that, they can see much faster and stronger positive results with a good marketing campaign, because in many cases they have more money and are better marketers than much of the small local competition, which may be producing the right products or recipes but lacks the marketing savvy or capital to compete with the big guys.

Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 9 months ago
Anyone with significant experience in the food industry, particularly new product development, will tell you horror stories about the dangers of “the golden palate.” This is basically a senior executive dictating new product design on the basis of what she likes. We spend millions of dollars in product research to avoid it. The industry also wastes millions of dollars in concept and product research trying to “invent new stuff.” What we typically wind up with is a marginally differentiated idea that we then completely disembowel as we try to make it more acceptable to the mainstream consumer. By trying to get the highest possible appeal scores from the mythical “average consumer,” we get a higher projected volume number from our testing protocol — which in turn gets us management approval to launch (and hopefully gets us promoted before the thing actually hits the shelf and flops!). While engaged in this highly sophisticated new product development process, we routinely ignore what people are already doing to make their eating experience more enjoyable. Case in point —… Read more »
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
15 years 9 months ago

Yes, this is a wonderful example of the old Chinese proverb “stop and smell the chicken soup.” (OK, maybe it’s not such an old Chinese proverb.) Nothing can replace immersion into the culture from a sensory standpoint. It’s not enough to get it intellectually. Using all five senses is what brings new ideas to life (and of course being open enough to allow the ideas to flourish). As someone asked earlier…I also wonder if it would have been the same story had it not been the top gun. I have witnessed many great ideas die because they didn’t have the support of top management, ideas that were also born of first hand ethnographic experiences. Regardless, it’s a great story and one that should circulate and encourage more of this type of behavior.

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
15 years 9 months ago
I was extremely impressed with Ben Ball’s candor. And I have no doubt he was being brutally accurate. The number of truly innovative products introduced in the past 10 years by major CPG firms gives testimony to the inherent biases of the process. Product development is meld of science, process, and intuition. The right mix of those ingredients varies from industry to industry. Leave any one of those out, and within a relatively short time, the well will go dry. Or it will be full of water with no way to lower the bucket. Or the bucket will have so many holes that by the time it gets to the top, there’s no water left. Enough the homespun analogies. The competitive dynamics of an industry very clearly specify the needs of the product development function. Time to market, dependency on new products, innovative differentiation….these and many other “metrics” of product development are derived from the positioning of the company within the industry. Well run, long term successful companies have built an infrastructure which supports the… Read more »
M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 9 months ago
Without a doubt, the new cumin-flavored (the spice that makes Mexican food taste “Mexican”) chicken from Tyson will be found in the frozen food aisle. And, they’ll have the power of the brand to assure adequate shelf space and facings. Smaller frozen food manufacturers formulate new products like this all the time. But, they don’t make it to market because they don’t have retailer influence, and they can’t guarantee a certain amount of retailer revenue from the shelf space they occupy. Instead, they buy their way onto the shelf, wind up with a single facing on the bottom of the freezer, and are eventually discontinued. In fact, many of the “great product ideas” from major food manufacturers are stolen, copied, or purchased from smaller, more entrepreneurial manufacturers. Speed-to-market for new food products has been significantly enhanced in recent years, following the quick-time model for new car development by automobile manufacturers like Chrysler-Benz. They’ve (food and cars) been successful in “taking the air out of” development schedules, and primarily by understanding the stakes involved in getting… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 9 months ago
There were several responses to this question that have triggered several reactions for me. First, the issue of Mr Rice’s job title and position in the company. The up side of this is that he is still walking the floor and presumably thinking about his job even when he’s officially off duty so that he can be inspired wherever he happens to be. The down side is that he was able to get the product developed because he is the boss. The other issue is one of premature congratulations. Getting the product to market is certainly an achievement but isn’t it a bit soon to start hooraying, when customer reaction has yet to be gauged? This product could disappear as quickly as it appeared, at least in part due to an observation already made about it being introduced purely because of Mr Rice’s job title and enthusiasm. If the fictitious lowly employee had come up with the idea and customers didn’t take to it, would there be more or less complaints about the cost of… Read more »
Richard Alleger
Guest
Richard Alleger
15 years 9 months ago

This is a great example of management by walking around. We all can lose too quickly the sense and knowledge of what is going on in our respective worlds if we do not get ourselves out of the office, down on the streets and close to where the products originate and where the customer finds the product.

victor martino
Guest
victor martino
15 years 9 months ago
I think the story of this discovery is made interesting by the fact that it is so unusual that a large food company allows such innovation; a company enthnographer paid to scout out ideas. Three cheers to Tyson for being innovative. This form of product development isn’t new however. For example, this is how chefs get new recipe/dish ideas. Go to Farmer’s Markets in New York City or San Francisco or Los Angeles and you will find chefs from those cities’ leading restaurants looking for new ingredients, people and ideas. The same can be said for travel — it is a chef’s best friend. This is also how food industry entrepreneurs get ideas: A young woman visiting India tasted the local drink call Chai — Oregon Chai was created. A California student was visiting Thailand for the first time and loved the cuisine — he brought the first Thai Products to the mass market in the USA… it goes on and on. Innovation. We need to encourage this process — learning to look at things… Read more »
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