Nomad is unlocking the future of frozen food with neuroscience and big data

David Harrison is Lead Insight Manager for frozen food company Nomad Foods, which in the UK includes the Birds Eye, Goodfellas & Aunt Bessie’s brands. He has been working at Nomad for eight years, helping lead the company’s digital transformation.

We talk to Harrison about maximising the potential of new technologies within a large company, and how Nomad has changed its approach to insight innovation.


How has Nomad’s approach to insight changed?

Like many companies we are very data hungry, but also data literate. Our approach to insight is to focus on the consequence – what can we do better as a business based on this? – rather than the purest research answer.

The other big shift has been around unlocking the power of big data. We still spend an awful lot of time looking at EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale) and panel data, but there is huge potential in linking up sources – web listening, and other more advanced analytical approaches. We are continually challenging ourselves and asking, what is it we need to understand? What’s the best way to understand it? And what technology advances allow us to do it?

What technologies are you using for insight research now?

Web listening and neuro research are both part of our digital transformation. On the web listening front, we’re focussing on emotion analytics. The outdated model states that people rationally decide what to purchase: ‘I will buy this because it has high iron content.’ In reality emotions drive our decisions, we then rationalise what we’ve done. Take buying a house. It should be the most rational purchase I ever make, but ultimately I make the decision based on how I feel as I’m walking around it. We want to build strong emotional engagement with consumers and back that up with great product experiences that re-enforce that emotional connection. We are undergoing work on this for brand connection, using Happen’s StarMaker tool.

How are you using neurotechnology?

Neurotechnology is a very pragmatic approach that we use for pre-testing during the creative process. A number of participants watch a few adverts and their neurological response is measured via a headset. We can measure what they are engaged with, and how strong the emotion produced is. We can quickly discover what people are responding to, spot opportunities to improve.

"The vast scale of unstructured data is completely changing our industry – there is an explosion of things like communities, big data, neuroscience, social listening and predictive science"

David Harrison, Lead Insight Manager at Nomad Foods

What made you seek out new methodologies?

Firstly, we believe in the importance of emotion, and how we were testing historically didn’t reflect that. Secondly, when it came to using other methodologies for brand connection we weren’t seeing a great relationship between results and sales, and finally we weren’t acting on the output. We used 30-minute questionnaires with several hundred participants. Then we had a big debrief every year. A couple of years ago we were struggling as a business – we had these brilliant brands everyone loved and trusted, but we had been declining for a sustained spell and what we were measuring wasn’t helping deliver sustainable growth. Why were we doing research if it didn’t change anything and deliver value to the business?

What pushed you to make the leap and enact such big changes?

We were looking for a number of years and hadn’t really found anything – we didn’t think anyone was doing what we wanted. When I first met Mark Cowan (Happen Co-Founder) and Dave Hood (Happen Group Innovation Director), that was a real watershed moment. I could very quickly see how the StarMaker tool could be used to look at emotion, then translate that into brand connection insights. The second big moment was taking our CMO – who got it straight away – through it. In that moment I knew it made sense, and was not just some theoretical idea I dreamt up.

Why is emotion so important?

People intuitively understand emotions. But even if you don’t agree with the methodology straight away, it helps you find Facebook posts where a person expresses a great experience and you get to see it in their words. With StarMaker, you can see tens of thousands of those posts – that makes it very tangible. I could sit by myself looking at the Birds Eye Facebook page and get a good sense of what the consumer wants. But Happen has done this in a structured, repeatable, scalable way. We’re not asking someone to understand neuroscience – we’re asking them to make quite small leaps in understanding.

How do you share new methodologies and learnings across the business?

We’re becoming more harmonised and consistent in how we view and use data. Where possible, we create best practice and share that across all our markets. We are doing the brand connection work with Happen centrally, myself and the global team. Then we engage our biggest markets and get input from their insight teams. Best practice is ultimately owned by us and delivered locally. The brand connection work represents a big shift in how we think about our brand, so we’ve spent a lot of time with stakeholders talking about methodology and why we’re making the change. We also ran two or three pilots before committing to all the changes, and got feedback throughout that process.

How is the research industry going to be impacted by new technologies?

The vast scale of unstructured data is completely changing our industry – it will be very different in five or ten years’ time. Even if you look back five years ago, it was dominated by Kantar and Nielsen data and big ad hoc studies. Now we see an explosion of things like communities, big data, neuroscience, social listening and predictive science. A lot are still in their infancy, but companies are getting to grips with how to use them.

Can you tell us about Nomad’s new vegan line, and how you moved into this market?

It’s an obvious extension of our brand, which is all around main, family meals at home. We have great health credentials, and the vast majority of our products are fish and vegetables. Vegan alternatives hit the same sort of occasion with the same credentials – taste quality, convenience and health. We have the benefit of working across a number of markets in which frozen foods are more developed and, like many other companies, we were seeing the rise of something that is a trend not a fad. It’s a big growth bet for us. Clearly health is very important within the range. You can have the healthiest product in the world, but without taste and convenience it’s pointless. So we did a lot of product tasting.

How has this impacted your strategy?

Our strategy remains the same. We’re focussing on our sectors and making sure we don’t get distracted with what else is possible – we’re not going to wander off and do frozen cocktails, for instance. We have big launches, like the vegetarian ranges, but otherwise are remaining focussed and disciplined, while investing in big opportunities.

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