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A Spicy Innovation Strategy Example from McDonald’s & Heinz

A Spicy Innovation Strategy Example from McDonald’s, Heinz

New Products Try to Treat Millennial & Gen Z Taste Buds

Today’s innovation strategy example explores the rise of spicy food and how legacy brands are responding to this trend in 2023. Personally, I hated spicy food as a child, but this has recently changed, possibly due to COVID! 

While I was lucky enough not to get sick in the early months of the pandemic, I did finally get COVID in mid-2022. What did I want to eat afterwards, and what have I loved ever since? Sichuan food! Oddly, COVID seems to have made me much more desirous of the famous flavor combinations of Sichuanese, such as spicy and numbing, and it seems to have increased my tolerance for all spicy food greatly. 

Apparently, COVID-causation aside, I am not alone. A rise in spicy food popularity in the US market has been a trend for over a decade (and has been growing in popularity for hundreds of years…). 

How should existing brands respond to these trends, in terms of their innovation strategy? 

This innovation strategy example explores the rise of spicy foods as well as two examples of brands that have recently capitalized on this trend. As we will see, both McDonald’s and Heinz, two legacy brands, have hopped on the ‘spicy’ trend with new product offerings that incorporate a spicy element without reinventing the wheel or alienating customers who want milder options. In addition, Heinz in particular seems to want to market its ketchup to the young adults who may have grown up putting their product on everything but ditched this habit as they got older. By providing spicy options and a hot sauce, they seem to be reaching out to the young adult demographic. This innovation strategy example therefore demonstrates the importance of paying attention to market trends while building on the existing strengths of your brand. 

A Spicy Innovation Strategy Example from McDonald’s & Heinz

Tracing the Trends in this Spicy Innovation Strategy Example

In general, spicy foods have been increasing in popularity. In 2019, QSR Magazine reported that: 

consumer interest in hot and spicy ingredients has increased 10 years in a row.” 

Indeed, it hasn’t just been for the last 10 years that spicy food has been spreading in popularity: try the last half millennium! As Charles Spence notes in an article in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, hot peppers were a new world crop, only introduced to Europe and Asia within the last 500 years. Yet, especially in Asia, they influenced the cuisine of the region rather definitely. However, Spence also notes that there is no scientific consensus as to why spicy food is so popular and the pepper spread worldwide in just 500 years. 

Some sources attribute the recent increase in popularity of spicy food to generational shifts: Hayley Hyer, writing for Supermarket Perimeter, writes that many new products are responding to “younger generations’ interest in global flavors,” which include spicier foods. Of course, generational change does not tell us about root causes, or why one generation is different from the previous ones. Regardless of its causes, the trend continues now in 2023, with Food Business News reporting this July that: 

“demand for spicy foods has grown particularly in the foodservice segment, where 71% of menus and 11% of drink menus feature the word ‘spicy,’” and that “hot sauce consumption also has grown more than any other condiment over the last year.” 

Not only has spicy food been a trend for a long time, but it also seems to be picking up speed in 2023. 

A Spicy Innovation Strategy Example from McDonald’s & Heinz

Innovation Strategy Example: McDonald’s

With the general trend towards spicier foods established, let’s turn to how two legacy brands have responded. Our first innovation strategy example is the new set of jalepeño products from McDonald’s. This year, the brand has reintroduced the Jalapeño Double, which was discontinued in 2014 despite seemingly being a tasty product. It also introduced two new products, a Jalepeño Bacon Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a Cheesy Jalepeño Egg McMuffin. According to The, the burger is not actually that spicy: 

“When you see “jalapeño” in the name, a certain level of mouth-tingling expectation is set. Yet nowhere in McDonald’s description of its new burger does the word “spicy” actually appear… [in the burger there is] not any perceptible capsaicin heat.” 

McDonald’s might be seeking to capitalize on this trend without alienating consumers who do not enjoy very spicy foods, which is indeed a very clever innovation strategy. Regardless, we can see that, using McDonald’s as an innovation strategy example, reintroducing old products or delivering new ones that are fairly similar to other successful items, while still following trends, is a solid option. 

A Spicy Innovation Strategy Example from McDonald’s & Heinz

Innovation Strategy Example: Heinz

Our second innovation strategy example is the new line of spicy sauces from Heinz. Its innovation strategy is similar to the one we saw above from McDonald’s: it created spicy variations on a tried-and-true product, ketchup (as well as introducing a hot sauce). On the brand’s website, they write that you can now: 

“enjoy authentic Heinz Ketchup with an extra ‘kick’ of flavor for adventurous adult taste buds!” 

This seems to be an effort to market spicy foods more towards the Millennial or older Gen Z demographic, and perhaps push back on possible perceptions of ketchup as a condiment for children. According to a press release in which it announces three new spicy ketchup varieties as well as a new hot sauce, the product release responds to demand from Millennial and Gen Z consumers who “actively seek a greater variety of spicy flavor options.” 

The three Heinz ketchups range from medium to hot to hottest, giving a variety of options. Again, similarly to McDonald’s, the brand capitalizes on the ‘spicy’ trend while creating mildly spicy products that will appeal to a broader base of consumers, though unlike McDonald’s, Heinz seems to have created some truly spicy products as well. 

Innovation Strategy Example that Lacks Innovation?

After reviewing the new products from these two giant brands, we can see a clear pattern: neither McDonald’s nor Heinz is looking to radically alter their offerings, but both brands are using an innovation strategy of creating new products that respond to a trend while sticking to the strengths of their brand. Furthermore, Heinz in particular seems to want to market itself to young adults by following these trends. This highlights both the virtue and the challenge of a well-established brand: Heinz and McDonald’s can leverage their existing consumers and create new products that will be more trusted. 

On the other hand, they are not creating the most cutting-edge products: the McDonald’s burger isn’t even really spicy. Different innovation strategy examples will be appropriate to different brands, and Insight to Action can help you sort out what innovation strategy examples should guide your company.

For more innovation strategy examples, as well as brand strategy templates, customer segmentation examples, and more, visit our resources page. Furthermore, if you attend our office hours, you can meet with our team and ask any questions you may have about these topics. Finally, our newsletter provides the latest on all things market strategy. By providing all of these resources, we hope to show how Insight to Action can help you to create an innovation strategy appropriate for your business, whether you are a legacy brand or a start-up.