The recent announcement by General Mills to make changes to some of the most popular breakfast cereals by removing all artificial colors and flavors should come as no surprise. Declining sales of these items drove the decision, but what a daunting task! How can you take something that is still being purchased by large numbers of consumers and change it without altering the features that those consumers love so much?

The concept of formulation change is certainly not foreign to the pet food industry. Consumer demands often drive a change, but what can be done about the consumers that were perfectly happy prior to a change? The challenge of making a change to a tried and true formula should not be approached lightly.

Consider this: your company decides to enhance your products with an amazing new palatant that has been shown to improve palatability by more than 50% over the current palatant being applied, and the cost is only 1% more. Who wouldn’t jump at that opportunity? Think of those calls about pets refusing to eat the food that no longer will come into your call center. You will be the superhero for all of the finicky pets of the world! The only problem is, you will have to change your label.

A few of the questions that need to be answered prior to the change:

  • Should we announce the change to the consumers ahead of time?
  • How should the change be communicated?
  • Will there be any impact on the digestive system of the pets eating the food?
  • How will complaints be responded to?

Communicating change ahead of the launch can bring up distribution and supply issues. If the distribution and retail channel knows a change is coming soon, they may be reluctant to place orders, waiting for the new product to arrive. Making an announcement at the time of the launch will sometimes bring the ire of consumers who feel strongly that they should have been notified well in advance. Weighing the potential implication of both sides of this argument will help decide when it is best to make the announcement.

Sometimes the change is communicated only by a change in the ingredient deck. When a new feature brings a significant benefit to the product, a burst or sticker might drive interest and draw in new consumers. When something is actually printed on the packaging regarding an improvement or new feature, this will need to be removed in six months, so design is critical to minimize expense. Using websites, social media and POP materials can help spread the word.

The question of whether a formulation change could impact the digestive system of pets eating the food is an important internal discussion. When General Mills swaps out the artificial flavors in my Lucky Charms for natural flavors, it is unlikely to cause me any digestive distress unless I have a sensitivity to the new flavor or I eat Lucky Charms everyday for each of my meals. Since pets often eat the same food for breakfast and dinner, a minor change could possibly impact the digestive system. Understanding this possibility and addressing it, particularly with the customer support team that will be fielding questions about the change, is paramount to success.

Finally, scripting possible complaints and how to respond to them will alleviate stress and prevent an inadequate or insensitive comment from going viral. Make sure that the consumer support team plays a key role in creating or reviewing these scripts. This team is on the frontline and has critical knowledge of your customer base and the types of issues and concerns that arise every single day. Using knowledge that you already have will save time and money.

Change is good. Or is it? Of course it is. But with change often come challenges that are much easier to resolve with proper preparation. Prepare your team to handle these challenges for assured success.

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