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When discussing innovation, people naturally think of some industries such as tech and design. But other industries need to innovate as well to keep customers coming back for more. This is especially true for established industries: to remain leaders in their markets, companies in these industries need to constantly deliver new and exciting offerings that create interest and drive sales.

One example is the global food industry, which is experiencing perhaps one of the largest transformations in recent history. Evolving consumption habits, purchase channels and global consolidation have led this industry to place a laser focus on innovation - both to remain relevant to consumers and to also drive incremental sales. As the following examples show, forward-leaning companies in the food business are increasingly listening to their customers in order to figure out what to offer next. This is true customer empathy in action.

Here's how food companies innovate today:

  1. Getting a deep understanding of customers.

"Everything we do starts with the consumer in mind, and in Fiscal 2015 we're applying this consumer first mindset across our portfolio," says Ken Powell, General Mills chairman and chief executive officer. "Through a deep understanding of our consumers - what foods they like, where they shop and how they like to cook - we are rapidly addressing their needs with products that offer relevant health news, increased convenience, superior taste and product quality."

This year, protein-packed cereal and yogurt, snacks and convenient meals with bold and indulgent flavors, whole grain and gluten-free food options are key consumer-driven product themes poised to drive growth for General Mills. - Consumer Goods Technology

Tweet this!New @GeneralMills offerings come from a "deep understanding" of customers: (CLICK TO TWEET)

  1. Testing with customers.

In search of ideas, [Taco Bell's] product developers mine social media, consider new ingredients, and track rivals. Some Fridays the team does what they've dubbed a "grocery store hustle" to see what's new in retail. But the basic pillars of anything they develop remain taste, value, and speed, Matthews says. The less a restaurant has to change its kitchen operations, ingredients, or equipment, the better.

The developers come up with a prototype, then start testing it with consumers in the lab and in test restaurants. The typical product goes through about 100 iterations by the time it is launched. The Waffle Taco, for instance, was changed 80 times through various characteristics such as shape (square, oval, and rectangular waffles, eventually settling on one with flat sides and round ends), weight, thickness, intensity of vanilla flavor in the shell, and fillings. Once Taco Bell finds a product that works, it develops variations for future launches: Its popular Doritos Locos Taco has grown to include new taco shell flavors and different fillings. - Vanessa Wong, Businessweek

Tweet this!What's the secret to @TacoBell's #innovation? It's about working closely with customers: (CLICK TO TWEET)

  1. Tracking trends in the market.

Panda Express is opening two more "innovation kitchens" over the next month. A bubble tea-only location will be opening in Honolulu, and a second, full-menu restaurant is slated to launch in Irving, Texas. The two locations have plenty in common: They're prosperous suburbs with streams of office park lunch traffic, access to nearby highways, and above-average numbers of younger and Asian-American customers already familiar with bubble tea.

"You can either continue to innovate and grow or lose market share," Dave Wallinga, Panda Restaurant Group's vice president of guest marketing, tells Fast Company. "For us, it's a question of what we can do in our position to stay relevant and attract the next generation of Panda customers. We track trends just like everyone else in industry and see the opportunity to become a choice more often with more people. Bubble tea drinks give people another reason to come into the store, salads give people a reason to grab something at lunch while they might think of us as dinner food, and it's the same with wraps--something more handheld might attract guests who are moving quickly." - Neal Ungerleider, Fast Company

Tweet this!"We track trends_and see the opportunity to become a choice more often with more people" - @PandaExpress' @davewallinga: (CLICK TO TWEET)

Coming up with great food ideas doesn't happen by accident. These examples show that customer intelligence can support food innovation by revealing something about the lifestyle of customers and understanding the 'why' of their behavior. Using insight communities and other platforms that enable deep, ongoing insight, food companies can get closer to the customer voice and build a long-term relationship that is based on trust, transparency and empathy.

How are you innovating at your company? Leave a comment below or tweet us at @VisionCritical.

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