Project Management Institute

Country Choice Organic, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, USA

Sharon Herzog and John DePaolis, Country Choice Organic

Sharon Herzog and John DePaolis, Country Choice Organic


THE CORPORATE TITANS of the world can usually afford to employ teams of competitive intelligence experts to help them make long-term project decisions. But smaller organizations often have to make due with less formal methods of tracking the market.

Fortunately, much of the information doesn't have to come with a hefty price tag—as long as companies are willing to invest some time and thought into collecting and analyzing it, says Sharon Herzog, director of research and development and corporate quality for Country Choice Organic. Not quite part of the major leagues yet, the company makes organic and natural cereals, cookies and snacks.

“It's different for big companies that can invest in a lot of market research,” she says. “We use the information that's already out there to make the best decisions about developing new products, packaging and marketing strategies.”

As the person in charge of advising what new projects the company will launch, Ms. Herzog devotes a lot of her time to watching the competition and figuring out how to position Country Choice against powerhouse food brands such as Quaker and General Mills.


John DePaolis, chief cookie officer at Country Choice, says the company's primary strategy is to mimic mainstream competitors with organic alternatives. “We look at what's been successful on the conventional side and where the white space is in the organic world, then we fill the gap,” he explains.

Let's Try This Again

The Project: Relaunch Country Choice Oatmeal Squares with a different name and added health benefits

The Trends: Convenience, health

The Competition: Quaker Oatmeal to Go

The Intelligence: Qualitative data showed consumers wanted healthy foods that could be eaten on the go. After Quaker changed the name of its Breakfast Squares to Oatmeal to Go, sales jumped 38 percent.

The Result: Country Choice debuts Oatmeal on the Run! to a positive response.


This was the case when Country Choice launched a project in 2001 to take on the all-mighty Oreo made by food giant Nabisco. “Oreo was the number one cookie brand for years, and we thought consumers were ready for an organic version,” Ms. Herzog explains. It appears they were right—the Country Choice sandwich cookies remain a popular staple. And the company continues to tap into the mimicry method for other projects.

But recognizing the popularity of a mainstream product is only the beginning. Once Ms. Herzog has a product idea in mind, she starts gathering the competitive intelligence: the size of the mainstream segment, whether there are organic or natural versions already on the market, and whether grocery stores will carry such a product.

For the most part, that information can be collected without paying massive fees, she says. Her team gathers data by talking to grocers and consumers, and tracking trade magazines for the figures on top sellers in key categories.

“I tear out those stats from every issue and keep them in a file so my team can track trends and changes in the marketplace and look for gaps that Country Choice can fill,” she says.

Using that information, Ms. Herzog will determine how big the category is for a product and estimate how much of it Country Choice will need to win over to meet her volume and price requirements.

Only once the field has been narrowed down does Country Choice selectively purchase market data to support her findings and more clearly define the marketplace. “In a small company you have to be strategic about the research you buy,” she says.

Once the project has been loosely defined, Ms. Herzog purchases all the competing products to analyze their ingredients, health claims, price per ounce, taste, texture and packaging. She then compares that data to current health trends and other “hot button” topics, such as obesity or whole grain content.

The project to develop Country Choice's Fit Kids oatmeal, for example, was developed in response to growing attention to children's health in the United States. “It's not something I would have done without seeing all the research,” she says.

But Ms. Herzog started to spot the potential as she and her team tracked the constant media focus on the topic and state regulations setting nutritional standards for foods sold in elementary schools.

“We did the research, and the issue that kept coming up was that kids needed more healthy breakfast options,” she says.


Along with launching new projects based on market intelligence, Country Choice relies on research to rethink existing products. One in particular, called Oatmeal Squares, had perplexed the company since its launch in July 2005.

There is so much information out there. The hard part is sorting through what's the most meaningful. —Sharon Herzog


When people tried the soft chewy oatmeal bars, they loved them, Ms. Herzog says. But sales of the product never quite lived up to expectations.

So in late 2007, Country Choice launched a project to retool the product.

“We started looking at data for competing products and saw similar issues,” she says. Her market research showed that Quaker had changed the name of its competing product from Breakfast Squares, launched in 2003, to Oatmeal to Go in 2006. And then she discovered sales had jumped 38 percent in the year ending in September 2007.

Further investigation showed that consumers responded well to phrases like “on the go.” A dietician who works with Country Choice also confirmed people wanted more healthy choices that could be eaten on the run. “Every trend we looked at pointed to the importance of convenience,” says Mr. DePaolis.

Despite the expense of relaunching an existing product, the research supported the decision and Ms. Herzog set to work to reinvent the bars as Oatmeal On the Run!

She also used the project as an opportunity to tweak the formula, adding ingredients and extending the shelf life.

“If you are going to change the packaging, you can change anything in the product,” Ms. Herzog explains. Again, the project team tapped into market research. And again, the focus was on hot-button ingredients that would stand the test of time.

“There's a world of things you can add, but our research shows that you need to pick things that will add long-term value and are meaningful to consumers,” she says.

Ms. Herzog found U.S. consumers were beginning to understand the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids, but they didn't know how to incorporate more of the ingredient into their diets. In response, Ms. Herzog put milled flax into the squares. Not only did it add 200 milligrams of Omega 3s to each serving, but it also gave Country Choice a point of distinction because none of the company's rivals were using the ingredient.

Country Choice launched its new Oatmeal on the Run! at the March 2008 Natural Products Expo, and the product proved immediately popular. “People were really excited about it,” she says. “They immediately got that it was a replacement for a bowl of oatmeal that they could take with them.”

Competitive intelligence gathered at the event also supported her decision: A lot of new products from other manufacturers had similarly descriptive names. “It's not just about what consumers are eating. It's about how they are eating,” she says. “They connect to those key words. It makes sense to them.”


As Ms. Herzog looks for her next big project, she keeps her eye on the competition and uses spreadsheets and other tools to organize and filter the loads of data that come in.

“There is so much information out there. The hard part is sorting through what's the most meaningful,” she says. Ms. Herzog tries to stay focused by defining broad goals, objectives and parameters, such as creating a grain-based cracker, and organizing relevant data around them.

“That way I don't get sidetracked,” she says. “I can push aside what's not relevant and find more well-defined data on the topics I'm interested in.”

Ms. Herzog also knows she has to sometimes step back from her research. To gauge how things fare in the outside world, she shares project ideas and early prototypes with consumers and buyers. “It can't just be a good idea in theory,” she says. “It has to make sense for you and for consumers, or it won't work.” –Sarah Fister Gale

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