Creating the many flavors of 7-Eleven Slurpees is a sophisticated process.
That’s why at the Dr Pepper Snapple (DPS) Group Research & Development Center’s Plano, Texas, headquarters, a cadre of scientists, engineers, technical specialists, researchers and marketers work with the 7-Eleven Inc. Slurpee product team on the year-round job of keeping new flavors in the pipeline.
This month’s featured Slurpee flavor, Invincible Orange, was created in the DPS lab last year.
The drinkable, frozen consistency of Slurpee beverages presents a unique set of challenges when developing flavors, according to David Thomas, Ph.D., DPS senior vice president of research and development who oversees a team of 75 food scientists, flavorists, engineers and support staff.
He should know. After receiving an undergraduate degree in microbiology, Thomas focused his graduate studies on food science with an emphasis on flavor biochemistry, earning both a master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Wisconsin. As head of R&D for DPS, Thomas holds 15 patents related to ingredient and food science technologies and has overseen the development of some of the most popular new Slurpee flavors.
“The Slurpee profile we work with is bold and flavorful,” Thomas said. “The target flavor has to burst in your mouth and be more intense to meet the taste expectations of Slurpee customers. That presents an even greater challenge because carbonated soft drinks are some of the most unforgiving products when working with flavors. Add to that the frozen element and you have an even greater challenge. To replicate a carbonated beverage, the flavor concentrate has to be many times stronger for the frozen version.”
How hard can it be to create a single flavor like orange? Thomas said the first question is what kind of orange flavor is desired. Even the actual fruit’s flavor can vary, from sweet to tart. The decision must be made whether the target is that of a fresh, juicy orange, sweet like marmalade or replicates a mouth-puckering sour candy. To that end, hundreds of small brown bottles line the shelves in the flavor lab, which lies at the core of the R&D Center. Each holds a different flavor key that, when combined in appropriate levels, creates the ideal blend. An orange flavor profile might include 12 different compounds.
Product developers and flavorists are considered to be both scientists and artists. Creativity is a job requirement. Flavor science incorporates a multitude of sensory perceptions. To come up with a “bullet-proof formula,” as Thomas calls it, product development scientists create numerous prototypes and test them with consumers. This consumer-focused design can go through many iterations before an optimum product is developed. To be selected, a new product must surpass specific hurdle rates during consumer testing, often using a 9-point Hedonic scale. In taste tests, the Hedonic scale measures how much participants like or dislike a food or beverage.
But flavor is not all that the DPS scientists test. Once the flavor has been created and perfected, the scientists turn their attention to another important Slurpee characteristic – color. The color of the frozen drink swirling around in the Slurpee machine barrels plays a critical role in consumers’ purchase decisions. So much so that the DPS R&D Center’s product development lab has its own four-barrel Slurpee machine to see how the product will look to real-world customers.
The brighter, the better, although brown is the accepted color for long-time favorites like Dr Pepper and cola Slurpee drinks. With new flavors, however, the beverage color may not necessarily match the featured fruit flavor – like blue. Although not the color of fruit one might find on a tree or vine, blue is always a hit with consumers.
In further testing, consumers are asked their preferences about flavor and color, whether they like them and if they like them together. The flavor and color profile of Invincible Orange, created by DPS and the featured Slurpee flavor in for May 2010, is similar to an orange ice cream float. The Slurpee was named to reflect the retailer’s promotional tie-ins with the movie Iron Man II, the sequel to last year’s runaway hit starring Robert Downey Jr.
Once the flavor and color are finalized, the DPS development engineers “scale up” production, according to Thomas. “Producing a flavor concentrate in a beaker can be very different from running it on a large-scale manufacturing line,” he said. “So it’s important that we create product formula and manufacturing specifications that meet our requirements for large-scale production.”
Scaling up the product takes the flavor concentrate production from beaker … to gallon … to hundreds of gallons at DPS’ pilot plant … to production line, with testing at each step to ensure that it’s meeting original specifications. The process to create a new Slurpee flavor can take from weeks to months depending on the complexity of the design requirements and the need to optimize the flavor, color and sensory attributes of the product.
Throughout the process, DPS works with the 7-Eleven merchandising and marketing staff. As frozen beverage category manager for 7-Eleven, Stefanie Olson knows just how much is riding on flavor creation and selection. “Flavor always comes first,” she said. “Bottom line, if the taste of the product doesn’t meet customers’ expectations, all the cool promotions in the world won’t keep them coming back. So that’s where we start, making sure we deliver at the Slurpee machine.”
That means staying ahead of the flavor trend curve. Food trends don’t change immediately but progress over time, according to Olson. “People’s food choices are broader, and today’s consumers, especially young ones, are introduced to more flavors than ever before,” Olson said. “New and exotic fruits – like acai, litchi, dragon fruit, blood orange, black courant and yumberry – have been gaining in popularity. Mango and pomegranate were the exotic fruit leaders a few years ago. Now they’re considered mainstream.”
The challenge is to create a flavor that customers will try. Exotic or unknown fruits, which may score high on a blind taste test, might not do so well on the Slurpee machine because they’re unfamiliar. Just the names might cause consumers to shy away from trying them. Olson said her approach is to try to marry old favorites like strawberry, citrus and cherry with new exotic flavors – or change the name altogether to one that reflects a promotion rather than a flavor.
Slurpee flavors that will be featured in 2010 were tested last summer at the height of the Slurpee selling season; Invincible Orange, created by DPS, was one of the favorites. Although flavors are selected up to a year in advance of being introduced in the store, much work is left to be done by the 7-Eleven team – flavor names, cups, straws, promotions, property tie-ins and sweepstakes.
“The trick is to be forward-looking when picking next year’s favorite flavors,” Olson of 7-Eleven said. “Any time you try to predict what’s going to be a hit with future consumers, there’s an element of risk. That’s why it is so critical to test new flavors every step of the way, first internally with the food science experts, then externally with the people who ultimately will decide whether to buy an Invincible Orange Slurpee drink at 7-Eleven.”
With its state-of-the-art R&D Center, DPS has made a strategic investment in flavor development, Thomas said. “Flavor creation is the heart of any brand, from the unique flavor of our top-secret Dr Pepper formula to our newest Snapple offerings. Flavored beverages are growing and our portfolio of brands reads like a who’s who of flavors.”