Special Edition: Outsourcing

Tapping into product- and ingredient-specific data can speed R&D cycle, experts say

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dietary supplement

Tapping into product- and ingredient-specific data can speed R&D cycle, experts say
Stepping beyond a company's in-house expertise and hooking into a provider of ingredient- and product-specific data can make R&D into more of a science and less of an art. Experts at Bulu Box, which generates data from its subscription-based supplements and foods sampling service, and Brandwatch, which helps companies monitor social media, provided insight into how these niche applications of outsourcing can help firms accelerate the R&D cycle.

Paul Jarrett co-founder and CEO of Bulu Box, said the data end of his company has tickled an exposed nerve in the market.  Bulu Box, based in Omaha, NE, is a fairly recent startup that was founded on the idea that a better way to conduct a product sampling campaign was needed.

Better sampling, better data

“I was at Champion Sports before this and we used what I call a spray-and-pray model of product sampling,”​ Jarrett told NutraIngredients-USA.  The model he and his wife and co-founder Stephanie came up with is a monthly sampler box. Subscribers paid a monthly fee, and in return received an assortment of samples of dietary supplements, foods such as nutrition bars or snacks, and personal care items.  The consumers were exposed to a wide variety of products at low cost and close to zero effort, and the sampling model included an active social media element, which allowed users to share their experiences with the products.

What the brands got out of the deal, along with exposure, was data. Lots of it. The model included both the monitoring of the social media messaging about the brand along with questionnaires about users’ perceptions of the product.  As the concept grew over the last year or more, Jarrett said the company found itself sitting on a growing trove of information. The plan had been all along to mine that stash in a more focused way, but events moved far more quickly than he anticipated.

“We really had a lot of things popping off all at once,”​ Jarrett said. “I was at Expo West in March and companies we had worked with were telling me that they wanted to start sampling with us every month; we were now built into their budgets as a line item.  On the subscriber side, we have started getting 1,000 and more new subscribers every month.

“People were pushing money at us to do consulting work,”​ he said. “We could see that we weren’t giving our brand partners enough.”

To support that growth Bulu Box recently secured $1.5 million in additional funding to launch Bulu Insights, a proprietary software that aggregates a vast trove of data acquired from over one million sample surveys into an easy-to-use real-time dashboard. This round of funding, led by Flyover Capital, will allow Bulu Box to continue the growth of Bulu Insights. Additional investors participating include Dundee Venture Capital and Triompf.

Real time R&D

Jarrett said the real-time data can help a brand fine tune its R&D effort. It’s an aspect of the dietary supplement business that he said has lagged behind the overall growth of the business, and still seems to reflect more the $6 million market of 20 years ago than the $35 billion dollar industry of today.

“It’s still shocking to me the amount of people who don’t have a true R&D process. It’s like they’re saying:  ‘I’m going to make 12 new products at the beginning of the year and the three best sellers I’ll keep.’ Or they say: ‘This is something that worked for my kid and I packaged it up and—bam!—I hope people like it!’ ”​ Jarrett said.

The new Insights tool will allow brands to access and manipulate the data on their products themselves.  They can also compare their own samples performed with the feedback on similar products that other brands received.

“For example, we might be able to tell someone sampling a vanilla protein powder that their product scored an 8 out of 10 on the flavor scale. With analytics we could show them that most vanilla proteins scored an average of 9.2 out of 10, and might show them some things they could do differently,”​ Jarrett said.

Jarrett said the Bulu Box approach is cheaper, more robust and more trustworthy than other methods of taking the market temperature, such as in-store demos, sampling at events and so forth.

“We don’t want to have anything to do with situations where we can’t measure the data. With the traditional model you are either paying time for one of your own employees, or you are trusting that the samples will get there on time, trusting that the person handing them out will care.  What I do trust is shipping to a specific address, to a customer who has signed up to receive our service, and then clicks on a website where I can measure their activity,” ​Jarrett said.

Listening to the buzz

Taking the market temperature is one of the things that Brighton, UK-based research firm Brandwatch helps companies do by monitoring the direction and velocity of the social media winds.

Brandwatch has over 80 million crawlers (exactly like a search engine such as Google crawls the internet), collecting and housing data on any and all topics. When a Brandwatch user creates and activates a query search to draw insights from data on a specific topic, hashtag, author (or various other parameters), they have access to the full public social data set from Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs, news sites and more. Essentially anything that is public online can be crawled by Brandwatch and that includes social posts and content related to the dietary supplements industry,”​ said Will McInnis, chief marketing officer of Brandwatch.

McInnis said monitoring the flow of information on the various platforms can help companies identify trending ingredients, underserved markets and can even provide insights into how consumers are using the products and when.

“A company can use data about specific ingredients (whether dietary supplements, beverage, food or medical brands) to gain insights into the demographics and regions that are discussing this specific compounds/ingredients. They can adjust sales, product development, and availability based on positive or negative sentiment, volume of discussion, and other social data insights,” ​McInnis said.

The flow of social media messages can also help companies determine where best to invest with limited promotional budgets.  It can help a company speed that process, rather than putting up the money first to expand distribution and then measure results on the back via sales (or lack thereof). It could, for example, help a company decide between brick and mortar and online, or what specific combination thereof might be optimal for their particular product.

“If a specific herbal supplement is being discussed in close proximity and frequently in connection to a specific online retailer, social data can help identify those connections which can help companies inform their sales strategy, product development, and inventory availability in brick and mortar stores vs online platforms,” ​McInnis said.

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