FoodEssentials co-founder Anton Xavier and his team are assembling and organizing food product information in some interesting new ways. I think their work is worth watching for two reasons: It addresses a growing shopper desire for more accurate and objective data to help with making better food choices – and it illustrates some of the new thinking about data that’s beginning to show up in the marketplace.
Anton and some of the other big thinkers on data see a future in which data is freely available to all, creating new opportunities for critical consideration of information and perhaps a new business discipline. Food Essentials gives us a look into that future; their business model is built around making product data available, accessible, and ubiquitous – to the FDA, to retailers, to brand manufacturers, and ultimately to shoppers.
BMC: What is the thinking that underlies the mission of FoodEssentials?
Anton Xavier: Our mission is to make product data available, accessible, and ubiquitous. We believe that it should be everywhere and used by everyone – and that once it is, it will dramatically change the way people choose food and food products. The key is having super accurate, up-to-date data that is flexible and accessible.
We’ve created a highly accurate database that makes this possible. It has a 95% accuracy rate and an average product age of 4 months old. It also identifies thousands of attributes for each product, making it possible to query and access the data in an almost infinite number of ways. Having such an accurate picture of the products in the market at any one time is a very powerful tool.
What motivated you and your co-founders to begin such an ambitious effort?
We wanted to build a consumer advisory product, but we realized quickly that this would be impossible without accurate, accessible data. So, we decided to solve that problem first.
One big challenge has always been the cost associated with collecting vast amounts of product data and then ensuring that it is kept up to date. Traditionally, solutions have focused on getting data directly from brands or insisting that data be collected before products go on the shelf. Instead, we found that taking the data directly from the product as it sits on the shelf was quicker, cheaper, and a more accurate representation of what shoppers were seeing. It also put us in control of when and how often the data was updated – and we built efficiencies into the network and technology that manage these logistics.
Now, brands and retailers are using our technology to help keep their own data up-to-date.
If the raw data about the food we eat is becoming more of a commodity, how does FoodEssentials add value?
Today there’s a vast amount of information tied up on product packaging that’s difficult for customers to get to in any comprehensive or practical manner, so their decision-making process isn’t supported by data in the way it could be.
We believe that if we can deliver the “right” data – meaning the relevant data – to shoppers at the time they are making decisions, it will influence those decisions. The change can be quite significant. In focus groups, we were able to demonstrate an over 80% change in product choice with the introduction of relevant messaging at the point of decision-making. We do this through our custom attributes.
We can create hundreds of custom attributes in a day, so we can provide specific attributes for each and every client. For instance, we have over ten different “Heart Healthy” attributes since different clients have specific needs. The more detailed the attributes are, the more knowledge surrounds the raw data; this allows us to turn that data into something valuable to the individual. We have created over 8000+ base attributes for every product, including the FDA guideline attributes through our partnership with them.
How do you look at the relationship between all the detailed raw data and the marketing claims that producers make?
Our technology enables us to understand what every item of data is, as well as its property and function. So for example, we know that 3g of sodium in a soup is low sodium, but 3g of sodium in another type of product is not. Or that a product does not contain artificial preservatives, but it’s not utilizing that claim whereas its competitors are.
The way the data is structured and organized makes it possible for brands and manufacturers to learn not just what marketing claims are trending in a specific category, but they can also learn about relevant claim opportunities they are currently missing.
How do you help producers and retailers use the data in interesting ways?
Here’s one way it works. For a retailer, we may collect and maintain a database that includes on average 95% of the relevant products on their shelves, and the products are then assigned our custom attributes. Through our LabelAPI platform, the retailer can now access, analyze, and understand the data – and finally, pull it into other uses like internal mobile applications; shopper-facing mobile, web and ecommerce applications; direct marketing initiatives and shelf-edge programs.
Right now, we’re working with a partner who is delivering to retailers the most sophisticated health and wellness shelf-edge program in the industry. The response after only 12 months in the market has been incredible.
How do shoppers currently interact/experience the output of your work?
We’ve built our technology to be a flexible platform so that it can be incorporated into any and all kinds of initiatives. Shoppers will find our data being used at the shelf-edge, on websites, in e-commerce, and in mobile applications.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned so far working on FoodEssentials?
One challenging issue is that we’re finding the same product in different stores in different parts of the country with different product labels. This could exist for a variety of reasons but when you’re focused on delivering as accurate a data set as we are, you have to take that into consideration.
Another was learning just how out-of-date the data is that’s currently being used by retailers. This is something we’re helping to resolve.