Co-creation in the food and beverage industry

Co-creation is about listening and sharing to get something in return. What is there to gain from this? Partly new insights to develop new products, but also valuable information about your consumers. A successful investment in co-creation creates spin-offs and value in a completely different way than conventional market research.

24 September 2020 •

‘Co-cre­ation. Another buzz­word, noth­ing new under the sun’ , the scep­tic may think. Focus groups, mar­ket research and the like have been around for decades to find out what con­sumers want. That’s part­ly true. Of course, com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions have always tried to get under the skin of con­sumers. In light of this, it is pos­si­ble to con­sid­er co-cre­ation as a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion­ary process. But what is it all about? And are there good exam­ples from the food industry?

What is co-creation?

To under­stand co-cre­ation, we start by look­ing at what the rela­tion­ship between com­pa­ny and con­sumer has tra­di­tion­al­ly looked like. Surely cus­tomers and con­sumers pre­vi­ous­ly have been involved in var­i­ous activities?

Well, sort of.

Traditionally, com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions have used mar­ket research, sur­veys, focus groups, feed­back and the like to involve con­sumers. And of course, in these ways, you can reach a suf­fi­cient­ly large mass to cre­ate sta­tis­ti­cal cer­tain­ty and gain insight into var­i­ous things such as seg­men­ta­tion, mar­ket trends, ten­den­cies, and more. But these sur­veys are one-time activ­i­ties and do not last long. And above all, they do not engage the consumer.

Co-cre­ation is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent animal.

With co-cre­ation, you cre­ate val­ue-cre­at­ing activ­i­ties by col­lab­o­rat­ing with con­sumers. In return, you will of course get every­thing that mar­ket research pro­vides: opin­ions, atti­tudes, insights, and more.

But it does not stop there.

Building a relationship

Successful co-cre­ation goes deep and invites the con­sumer to par­tic­i­pate, to be involved and influ­ence, to be seen and heard. It is a rela­tion­ship-build­ing activ­i­ty that does not stop at stan­dard­ized ques­tions in a survey.

In order for the con­sumer to be able and above all to want to help you, there must be incen­tives for the cus­tomer to do so. The cus­tomer must feel involved, includ­ed and encouraged.

This col­lab­o­ra­tion can take dif­fer­ent forms. It may be that the con­sumer is encour­aged to con­tribute their own con­tent on social media such as images, text and rec­om­men­da­tions that are in some way linked to your brand.

But it can also be more in-depth efforts. In its most ambi­tious form, co-cre­ation can be used to devel­op com­plete­ly new prod­ucts. We will return to that, but first, we will answer the ques­tion of what makes co-cre­ation possible.

graffiti on brick wall

Why now?

The tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment has meant that it is now pos­si­ble to bring con­sumers and com­pa­nies togeth­er in a cost-effec­tive way and form a rela­tion­ship. Modern tech­nol­o­gy is need­ed to con­tin­u­ous­ly keep a rela­tion­ship alive and to be able to receive ideas, views and feed­back. Without it, every­thing would just be expen­sive, slow and not worth the effort. With the help of tech­no­log­i­cal advances and the dig­i­tal matu­ri­ty that has tak­en place in the last 10–15 years, co-cre­ation is an opportunity.

The devel­op­ment of social media, smart­phones, tablets, video con­fer­enc­ing and advances in dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, and more, are just a few exam­ples of things we now have avail­able. Users and con­sumers can not only share infor­ma­tion but also cre­ate con­tent them­selves and con­tribute to what hap­pens on the web in a two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion with com­pa­nies and organizations.

Examples from reality

Let’s look in-depth at an exam­ple from reality.

In 1877 in Italy, a food com­pa­ny was estab­lished which is now known all over the world. It all start­ed with bread and pas­ta in the city of Parma and since then it has grown into a glob­al food group with many brands. Every year, they launch about 50 new products.

If you are guess­ing at Barilla, you are absolute­ly right.

Barilla is, as many know, a major pro­duc­er of, among oth­er things: pas­ta, bread, sauces and bak­ery prod­ucts, with a turnover of sev­er­al bil­lion euros each year.

The glob­al food com­pa­ny had noticed that their cus­tomers were engaged in the brand and the com­pa­ny and often expressed their thoughts and opin­ions via email. At Barilla, they noticed that there was poten­tial for some­thing big.

Barilla took action and in 2009 the glob­al food com­pa­ny start­ed a col­lab­o­ra­tion with its con­sumers to man­age cus­tomer engage­ment by lis­ten­ing to them.

A plat­form on the web was cre­at­ed, spe­cial­ly devel­oped to col­lect ideas from con­sumers in a sys­tem­at­ic and thought­ful way.


The guiding principles

Barilla devel­oped three prin­ci­ples for guid­ing the cam­paign and the dig­i­tal platform.

  1. Our inten­tion is not to talk to con­sumers, it is actu­al­ly the oppo­site, it is to listen.
  2. The goal is not to teach, but to learn.
  3. It should be an oper­a­tional plat­form, with the ambi­tion to pro­duce action, rather than talk.

Barilla want­ed the plat­form to engage and lead to open and active con­ver­sa­tions to get an insight into what inter­est­ed con­sumers. It would not be about high­light­ing Barilla. The whole project should be per­ceived as being gen­uine and sincere.

Five categories

In order to keep order among the ideas, five cat­e­gories of ideas were also developed:

  1. Products (ideas for new prod­ucts, new ingre­di­ents and new recipes)
  2. Brand (ideas and feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with the con­sump­tion process)
  3. Packaging (design, shape, size and material)
  4. CSR and envi­ron­men­tal responsibility
  5. Other areas

In order for the whole thing not to result in a lot of spam and friv­o­lous chat­ter, par­tic­i­pants had to live up to cer­tain stan­dards. For exam­ple, to cre­ate an account and reg­is­ter on the forum. The ideas also need­ed to show orig­i­nal­i­ty and innovation.

The cam­paign includ­ed a blog page. On the blog, employ­ees could con­tin­u­ous­ly write about imple­ment­ed projects or launched prod­ucts, but also inform about how ideas and pro­pos­als were handled.

Co-creation 2.0

But the com­mit­ment did not stop at engag­ing con­sumers on a sin­gle occa­sion. The com­mit­ment con­tin­ued and devel­oped through con­sumers being able to vote and sug­gest improve­ments to oth­er con­sumers’ con­tri­bu­tions. The pot kept boil­ing and it was up to the con­sumers them­selves to make win­ning contributions.

The ten most pop­u­lar ideas then went on, but Barilla kept their veto power.


The next step after each ‘cam­paign’ was to inter­nal­ly eval­u­ate the ideas vot­ed on. The eval­u­a­tion process and how long the imple­men­ta­tion would take, etc, was com­mu­ni­cat­ed on the web­site to the pub­lic, to bring about open­ness and transparency.

Professional help

Staff at Barilla helped con­sumers con­cep­tu­al­ize and refine their ideas.

Spitting out ideas may be an easy task. But gen­er­at­ing ideas in a pro­fes­sion­al way requires a cer­tain system.

Consumers were there­fore helped to go from the tac­it knowl­edge to the explic­it. The tac­it knowl­edge is per­son­al, unar­tic­u­lat­ed and can be dif­fi­cult for the envi­ron­ment to under­stand. The idea must be explic­it, i.e con­crete and clear, for the recip­i­ent to under­stand it.


Communication with the pub­lic and con­sumers was main­tained at all times. It was up to the mar­ket­ing depart­ment and the research and devel­op­ment depart­ment to con­tin­u­ous­ly pro­vide feed­back on ideas – those that could be imple­ment­ed as well as those that could not.

It was explained why some ideas with poten­tial could not be imple­ment­ed at the present. At the same time, the Barilla staff were keen to share infor­ma­tion about new events, prod­uct launch­es and prod­ucts devel­oped from cus­tomer ideas.

The web-based co-cre­ation plat­form was also inte­grat­ed with social media such as Twitter and Facebook to con­tin­u­ous­ly com­mu­ni­cate with the public.

The result

During the almost three years that the co-cre­ation work was going on, Barilla received over 5,000 ideas, over 10,000 com­ments and over 100,000 votes.

The new ideas led to new prod­ucts and ser­vices, which were not pro­posed by either the research and devel­op­ment depart­ment or the mar­ket­ing depart­ment – but by ordi­nary con­sumers. Ideas in the cat­e­go­ry prod­uct were most with almost 3000 ideas and over half of these ideas could be clas­si­fied as original.

The new ideas result­ed in, among oth­er things, a new series of wheat flour cakes and new types of packaging.


In addi­tion to idea gen­er­a­tion, reg­is­tered users on the plat­form could choose to par­tic­i­pate in mar­ket research.

But wait a minute! Market research? Wasn’t it a poor and out­dat­ed method, some­one might object?

No, it’s not that sim­ple. It may work well as a com­ple­men­tary method, espe­cial­ly if you have an audi­ence that is already com­mit­ted and will­ing to share, just like in Barilla’s case.

In addi­tion, par­tic­i­pants could col­lect points which could then be redeemed for the company’s prod­ucts. At the same time, users on the plat­form vot­ed for an idea for email noti­fi­ca­tion for each new sur­vey conducted.

More than 20,000 peo­ple took part in the sur­veys. In this way, Barilla gained an incred­i­ble insight into needs, desires and con­sump­tion habits; invalu­able infor­ma­tion to make even bet­ter seg­men­ta­tion, which in turn can lead to bet­ter and more rel­e­vant products.

ripples on the water

What can we learn?

It is worth men­tion­ing that suc­cess­ful co-cre­ation often requires great efforts on sev­er­al dif­fer­ent lev­els. On the tech­ni­cal side, there must be a plat­form in place that is up to scrath. Also, the employ­ees must be on the ball and ready to adapt to a new way of work­ing. The efforts pure­ly finan­cial­ly and orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly may there­fore be high. At least for a start.

But once you have all these things in place, co-cre­ation can bring ben­e­fits and advan­tages that are dif­fi­cult to achieve in oth­er ways. Here are four exam­ples of what you have to gain.

Thoughtful and ambi­tious co-creation:

  1. can cre­ate unbeat­able loy­al­ty and com­mit­ment to your prod­ucts and brand
  2. is an ‘idea engine’ that nev­er sleeps. In this way, employ­ees in mar­ket­ing and devel­op­ment depart­ments who would oth­er­wise have done the job are relieved.
  3. can cre­ate valu­able insights ear­ly in the prod­uct devel­op­ment phase. If many peo­ple get involved in a spe­cif­ic idea, it may be a clear indi­ca­tion if the idea becomes a hit on the market.
  4. can cre­ate large amounts of data that become valu­able insights when it comes to mar­ket seg­men­ta­tion. Simply put: You get to know your cus­tomers and can there­fore pro­duce bet­ter and more rel­e­vant products.

Co-creation in the future

What does the future of co-cre­ation look like? No one knows for sure. In any case, it is clear that the tech­nol­o­gy that enables co-cre­ation will be even bet­ter. In par­al­lel with this, a new gen­er­a­tion is gain­ing influ­ence; Generation Z which can also be called ‘dig­i­tal natives’. This is a gen­er­a­tion that moves seam­less­ly between the phys­i­cal real­i­ty and the dig­i­tal. The con­trast is not as clear as it is for old­er generations.

Technological devel­op­ment and the pro­gres­sive new gen­er­a­tion points to a future where co-cre­ation is more rule than exception.

Further reading

Do you want to read more? At Bayn Magazine, you will find columns, fea­tures and arti­cles on busi­ness devel­op­ment and prod­uct devel­op­ment.

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