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A holistic approach to customer satisfaction

6 min read
IFF vegan cheese

There is a good chance you’ve enjoyed a bit of cheese this week. Sprinkled on some pasta, maybe in a sandwich, or melting on top of a juicy cheeseburger. If so, count yourself lucky.

Life without cheese affects around 5% of Caucasians in the UK, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition on levels of UK lactose intolerance. That number rises to 25% of African-Caribbeans, 44% of Asians, and up to 95% among some ethnic minority groups such as Afro-Caribbean and South Asian populations. However you cut that cheese statistic, that’s at least four million people in the UK alone that may be searching for a satisfying alternative to cheese. And that’s before you include the spike in the number of vegans in the UK, across Europe, and around the world. 

Efforts to reproduce cheese to take advantage of this opportunity are ongoing, but like any good cheeseboard the results have been mixed. Cheese is incredibly complex, an interplay of cultures, enzymes, and other ingredients that deliver flavours and textures, which themselves vary wildly depending on inputs like the type of milk, cultures, ageing and storage. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of unique cheeses around the world, from soft and mild to hard and sharp. Many are protected by laws governing provenance and authenticity. So where do you even begin to try and reimagine something like that?

“Technically it’s a massive challenge,” says Michelle Sinéchal, IFF’s Customer Experience Lead for Europe. “Cheese is special. It’s one of those foods that is eaten on so many completely different occasions, at breakfast, as a starter, at the very end of a meal, with wine… it’s very simple but also indulgent.”

She says IFF prioritised the “most popular cheeses in Europe, including Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda and Emmenthal, but the opportunities are endless. It has been a challenge, but we love sparking uncommon ideas to drive innovation.”

The process “starts and ends with the consumer through extensive consumer research. Throughout it we expose gaps, identify hurdles, do tests, taste samples, we work with an extensive team of designers, chefs, sensory scientists, marketers and commercial teams. This goes on for several rounds before we start blending tastes, creating prototypes and filtering out what doesn’t work so well. Perhaps something is too niche and needs further development, others we prioritise because we see potential.  Then we start designing the solution by tapping into the creativity of IFF’s flavourists and ingredient applications know-how of our scientists who push the boundaries for the perfect blend of flavours and ingredients to achieve optimal taste and texture that consumers will love.” 

IFF vegan parmesan

There are also “variable regulatory boxes we need to tick, perhaps we are using never before seen technology or new processes, perhaps we need to secure patents, make clarifications, gain EFSA clearance. It’s true end to end holistic product design. 

Throughout that process one thing is uppermost in everyone’s minds. “Most important of all is taste. Taste drives everything. It’s the number one reason why so many companies fail when it comes to plant-based, they sacrifice taste for speed to market and when it doesn’t taste good, the customers don’t come back. We had people staying behind after the IFF sessions at the last Tastes of Better to continue snacking from our plant-based cheeseboard or taking some with them. They were intrigued by the authenticity of it.”

Sinéchal says some people “didn’t even realise it was plant-based, and that is always the biggest compliment, but when it comes from a sophisticated audience of food development professionals it’s even better. To get that reaction to the flavour and the texture is hugely rewarding. Also the aroma, people were saying ‘there is such a lovely smell of cheese’, so this was something we were very proud of. There will be more surprise elements which will hopefully evoke a similar reaction in the Manchester event.  All I will say for now is that with the menu we have planned for the Manchester event, everyone will know where the IFF suite is.”

Beer here

Tastes of Better takes place in Manchester on the 16th of May, and there won’t just be a cheeseboard on the multiple-course IFF menu. “It’s Spring, it’s almost Summer, so beer is on the agenda when the sun comes out and the BBQs begin,” says Sinéchal. “It’s a staple drink in most households”.

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in the UK, taking 38% of all alcohol sales according to the WSTA, with lager the most popular type. But it’s also becoming less popular, because increasing numbers of people are seeking out alcohol-free versions of their alcoholic favourites. 

According to the ONS, at the turn of the millennium, 11% of UK adults reported not drinking at all, by 2021 that had almost doubled to 20%, a figure that will almost certainly have risen by the time the next set of results are released. It’s another opportunity, and Sinéchal says IFF’s range of zero-alcohol beers, which will also be served up at Tastes of Better, are a “good alternative and another example of a new product seamlessly blending in like plant-based food is starting to do. 

She says since IFF merged with DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences in February 2021, its expanded capabilities with ingredients and access to new ones has allowed the company to “create what we consider to be the ultimate tasting experience. We will be showcasing how we can optimise great taste in no alcohol beer using taste modulators and natural flavourings.”

The lo-no alcohol trend is part of an “overarching trend towards a healthier diet that also has benefits for overall well-being,” she adds. “I think that’s a key driver for a lot of consumers. It also fits in nicely into that bigger trend of reinterpretation. In previous times you would often drink an alcoholic beverage to wind down after a hard day’s work, but we see, especially with Gen Z’s, a generation that is proactively saying ‘No, I don’t want to cloud my mind with alcoholic drinks. I want to stay clear. I had such a hard day and I want to be fresh.'”

Delivering what it considers to be the “ultimate” zero-alcohol beer is another indication of why IFF’s overarching strategy is holistic and customer focused, but also ambitious. Or as Sinéchal says: “We always want to be one step ahead of what is on the market. Because once you are looking at a rival’s product, you are already too late.”