This was the theme of an interesting symposium at the IFT show on how new product development can be accelerated in order to get products to market quicker.
Unfortunately, statistics would suggest that the industry has a long way to go before it can confidently say that it understands consumer behavior.
"According to an IRI study, 52 per cent of new products fail," said Hollis Ashman, professor of food science at Ohio State University and a member of the Understanding & Insight Group.
This is because there is still a lack of insight into the consumer's relationship with the brand. According to Jeff Ewald, head of advertising firm The Optimization Group, food makers need to understand that the brand and the product interrelate.
"Food firms need to realize that their most important assets are their brands," he said. "Brands convey a ton of meaning, and a lot of this has to do with framing the reference."
What Ewald means is that products must be seen in some form of context. Food makers need to create an experience. This experience is the integration of words, images and emotions, and the product has to deliver this experience.
"The brand is a bridge, a promise that this experience can be delivered," he said.
In other words, the brand is a visible signal, but it is also a lot more. It has the power to convey meaning - this product is for successful, sporty people for example - and it also frames the consumer's expectation.
So if food makers want to develop and launch a new product successfully, they need to fully take into consideration the role that branding plays in informing consumer choice. This means taking a different approach to product development.
"There is a need for greater accuracy in consumer marketing, said Ashman. "To understand consumer behavior, testing methodologies will have to change."
There is growing acceptance that a one-off blind taste test simply cannot replicate how consumers would normally react in, say, a supermarket situation. This is because the brand, their frame of reference, has been removed.
This was most vividly demonstrated after Coke's infamous New Coke product launch of 1985. This, as much as anything, demonstrated the danger of underestimating brand power.
"In blind tests, there was no doubt that this new product tasted better - it was superior," said Ewald. "But when the product was launched on the general public, there was an immediate backlash. "Remember, this was before the age of the Internet. Can you imagine how fast this type of thing would happen now?"
The lesson learned from this episode was that the brand modifies consumer expectations. Add the branding - New Coke - and it changes the consumer's frame of reference.
Progress in this field has clearly been made since the 1980s. Comments made at the IFT conference, which wraps up here today, suggest that industry acceptance of the need to better understand consumer behavior is becoming ingrained.
"I've been really impressed with what food manufacturers have had to say here," David Eckert, vice president of ingredients firm Cognis, told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"There is a real acceptance that these firms have to respond to consumer needs."
This view was echoed by Connie Weaver, professor of foods / nutrition at Purdue University and one of the authors behind the revised dietary guidelines of 2005.
"I've been very impressed with what I've seen here at the IFT," she said. "You just have to walk through the exhibition to see that companies are dealing with issues such as trans fats, obesity and portion sizes."
If firms also begin to accept that the brand and the product interrelate, then food companies can invest in R&D with a clearer vision of exactly what consumers need, want and understand. And as Ewald points out, conceptual work is cheaper than prototype work.
In addition, new products might be less likely to fail in the future.
Findings of this symposium are due to be published later this year by Blackwell.