Understanding Our Customers: Refusing to Leave Good Alone
“There’s a better way - find it” is a saying that can be heard echoing through the halls of McKee Foods today, capturing the spirit of innovation that inspired McKee’s founder, O.D. McKee, to take that first step into the hearts—and mouths—of families around the world.
“This was O.D.’s go-to phrase as he would figure out problems and try to always improve,” said Chris Beagle, McKee Foods Consumer Insights Project Manager. “It’s still used and taught within our family and company as a whole—a reminder that you always have to improve your product, your value, your contribution, even yourself. If you refuse to leave good alone, that’s when you change good to great.”
As Consumer Insights Project Manager—and a fourth generation member of the McKee family—Chris understands that while innovation is a way of life at McKee Foods, it starts and ends with the consumer. Working with a passionate marketing team whose objective is discovering and anticipating the cravings of McKee’s consumers, Chris conducts in-depth market research through third-party tastings, focus groups, online polling and more to ensure the brand is headed where the consumer wants to go.
With his research, Chris seeks to answer questions like: What do people think of this product? Do customers notice the difference in a day of freshness? What is it that ties our customers to us, and have we improved their experience? These questions often lead the team to rethink everything from a product’s packaging and recipe to its design and advertising.
This attention to the consumer is what first put Little Debbie® on the map. "McKee Foods was the first company in the country to offer individually wrapped cookies in a multipack," said Chris. It was a winning combination that gave customers a bigger bang for their buck and anticipated the bulk buying trend.
"We also look outside the company to see what opportunities are in the pipeline," said Chris. "What do people really want to see in the marketplace? Do they want something chocolate and raspberry? Do they want maple? We saw that coming up as a big flavor trend last year, and now we have the Maple Honey Bun out."
It's this intersection of creative ingenuity and analytics that Chris finds is the most enjoyable part of his role at McKee. Having earned a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in financial management, Chris stresses market research is a skill anyone can learn. "Analytics is not something you're born with or without," said Chris. "If you want an easy way to practice analytics, read The New York Times and within six months, you'll have a pretty good idea of how to analyze a company and its trajectory."
He also highlighted the recent growth in college degrees and certifications specifically dedicated to the field. "Market research is a hugely growing sector at the moment industry wide," said Chris. "They literally cannot find enough people to fill the open positions."
But for those more interested in being called on to sample Little Debbie treats, Chris indicates they often hold blind tastings outside the company for unbiased feedback.
"Even though you can't sign up and be brought into Little Debbie for a tasting, there are ways to get involved in our study groups. It's a really great way to see unique things that haven't hit the market yet—or may never hit the market," said Chris. "Look for local focus group facilities or online panels because we typically submit a description to them of who we're hoping to hear from—and if you fit the profile, you will probably get a call."
At the end of the day, Chris notes that what focus groups and Little Debbie enthusiasts as a whole tend to get the most excited about is their memories of the brand—being able to share the tradition of snacking on an Oatmeal Creme Pie or a Swiss Roll with their children or loved ones. "It's just a constant sharing of memories, and it's rewarding to be able to help people connect with each other," said Chris. "It's all about bringing those stories into the company to drive us forward and to keep our fans as our target—as the people we want to talk to and the ones we want to make happy."