Meet ‘The People Person’ creating connections in powders

Fonterra's Principal Research Technologist, Rachel Traill, knows that people are what matter most

18 Jan 2024

7 min

#Consumer Powders #Global #Insights

Rachel, an expert in sensory and consumer science, loves the interconnecting relationships she has with our customers and her colleagues. Based at the Fonterra Research and Development Centre (FRDC) in Palmerston North, she is responsible for analysing the human interactions consumers have with our ingredients. She brings a wide range of experience in multiple categories throughout the company to this role.

Walks the walk, talks the talk

Rachel’s academic achievements include a Bachelor of Consumer and Applied Science with a major in food science from Otago University, New Zealand and she has been working for Fonterra for over 25 years. In this time she has moved through different areas within the company from quality and product technology, through to more specialised work in methodologies and capabilities. 

Her core specialty as a Principal Research Technologist is taking R&D through into commercialisation. She enjoys working with a wide range of colleagues from research and development, manufacturing, marketing, and quality. “I work with such a good variety of people. To get those interconnections across the business and see how a product progresses throughout our different teams is what I really enjoy,” she explained.

Understanding consumers

In the early stages of a project, Rachel works with the Insights Team within Fonterra, gathering information about consumer target markets. She described how this gives her an understanding of what they need to focus the product performance on: “If it’s a case of understanding what the next big thing in powders is going to be, I would use that interaction with the Insights Team to guide me on a country’s certain type of demographic we are targeting and how they would potentially use the powder.”

Rachel can recruit a specific group of consumers based on research from the Insights Team for benchmarking or prototype testing. She interacts with an external market research company for that. “For example, if a product is targeted for China, I’ll use a market research company within China. I’ll talk to them about what we are trying to do, why we are trying to do it, how we believe the consumer is using the product, and together, we’ll delve further into it.”

Collaborating with NZMP’s customers

Rachel sees her role as providing a communication channel between Fonterra customers and the consumers they are trying to appeal to. “With our findings, we’re able to go back to our customers and say, we’ve spoken to your consumers and this is what we found out. Does it resonate with you? What do you think of these findings?”

Rachel spends a lot of time with our customers talking through what they do and don’t like about certain products, and how they measure certain aspects of a product. “I’ll take that information back to our quality teams and it then drives a review of some of our quality methods, R&D methods, how we stir it, why we stir it that way, what temperatures, as well as what other tests they are using that we could apply.”

The people connection of consumer powders

There are plenty of tools that exist within the industry to measure the attributes of milk powder but Rachel and team need to uncover how it relates to the consumer. “Analytical tools give you a lot of fine details, but does it really matter? It’s what the consumer perceives in the end that really matters, not what reading you get off a piece of equipment. So we use both tools to understand how that product is performing. What the consumer sees in the end is what really matters."

Rachel has written two whitepapers on powder appearance methodology which have since become industry standard. The papers were written on completion of a large scale consumer study completed by Fonterra which saw Rachel and her team delving into the Saudi Arabia and Nigeria markets to learn how consumers were using our powders.

The teams were invited into 200 people’s homes in each country, connecting with the consumers on their level. They were able to interview and film everyday consumers to understand the nuances of how they use the powders.

“What that led onto was us questioning; are we actually testing for the right things from a quality point of view? Are we looking at the same performance criteria? Are we using the same temperature water or the same amount of water? All those things came back to us and gave us an understanding of how we could revamp some of our test methodologies and develop new ones.”

What Rachel found fascinating was how people were using the powders differently. In Nigeria, consumers tended to buy single serve sachets of milk powder and sugar, for example, and they were mixing it with a little bit of warm water. In Saudi Arabia, consumers bought 2kg cans and would spoon plenty of powder into a cup with sugar or honey and boiling water. “While it’s the same product, it’s being used quite differently and it’s just really interesting to watch those behaviours and to understand why.

“The sensory profile differs with how it’s served, so the team has to know how the consumer is reconstituting it. Are they consuming it hot, warm or cold? How much of the powder are they using? Are they sweetening it? These are the insights that matter during product sensory testing.”

Uncovering what people really think about powder appearance

Uncovering how important powder appearance is to consumers was one of the main purposes of the Nigeria and Saudi study.

As dairy is a natural product, there can be variations in the appearance of consumer powders depending on which plants they are manufactured in. So Rachel and her team needed to uncover whether this was an issue. “When they are buying the same product every time but the powders look different, they might think; are they bulking it up with more water? Is it a counterfeit product? There were a lot of underlying thoughts consumers were having just by the way the powder looks in the can. That was not something we were monitoring and hence I developed a methodology for the industry to look at it.”

Fonterra has implemented Rachel’s methodology developed as a result of the powder appearance findings, “Consumers are expecting more and more from what they are buying now so we have to always be on the ball to ensure we are supplying that.”

Using human interactions for testing

Back at FRDC in Palmerston North where she spends most of her time, Rachel is a key part of a team that works with a sensory trained panel which analyses the human perception of NZMP’s consumer powders among others. FRDC has three tasting panels each consisting of 12-15 people. “They are a very important part of our testing. They give us an aroma, flavour and texture fingerprint of a product. They tell us all the different sensory attributes they pick up and the intensity of those different flavour profiles.”

The FRDC sensory panel enables NZMP™ to analyse different products for sensory attributes such as creaminess, butteriness, oiliness, and many other different flavour attributes that come through. The data these sensory panels produce can be used to enable the development of new products or product improvements.  This sensory information is interpreted for the project team to help understand what levers can be manipulated to create specific flavour and textural profiles.

Driven by the human connection

Rachel loves the social aspects of her work. “You become sort of a family. Using each other’s skills, learning from each other, and there’s that mutual respect. I love sharing knowledge.” 

Naturally extroverted, in her spare time, you’ll find Rachel socialising and seeking out cool new places to eat. “I love meeting up with different people, talking about the food, and watching how they mix ingredients and make it.”

Watch the video below for some key insights from our interview with Rachel:

If you want to know more about Rachel’s Powders Appearance Methodology papers, you can check them out here. Or if you would like to know more about the world of sensory down in FRDC, check out this segment on New Zealand’s hit show ‘Seven Sharp’ back in 2020.

Consumer powders designed by world-leading experts like Rachel

NZMP has a range of consumer powders crafted and continuously improved on by our experts including Rachel and the team at the Fonterra Research and Development Centre. You can find out more about our consumer powders here or by contacting your NZMP Account Manager.

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