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DALLAS -- The process of creating a new Slurpee flavor can sound a bit like a Chemistry class -- with brix, beakers, acidulants and more -- and to the beverage scientists, engineers, technical specialists, researchers and marketers who work at labs designing the flavors of 7-Eleven's Slurpee, it is a science.
For instance, this month's featured flavor -- Invincible Orange -- was created in the Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS) Research & Development Center at its Plano, Texas, headquarters last year. The Slurpee was named to reflect the convenience store retailer's promotional tie-ins with the movie "Iron Man II," the sequel to last year's movie starring Robert Downey Jr.
The drinkable, yet frozen consistency of Slurpee beverages presents challenges when developing flavors, said David Thomas, Ph. D., DPS senior vice president of research and development, who also oversees a team of 75 food scientists, flavorists, engineers and support staff. As head of research and development (R&D) for DPS, Thomas holds 15 patents related to ingredient and food science technologies, and has overseen the development of several new Slurpee flavors.
"The Slurpee profile we work with is bold and flavorful," Thomas said in a statement. "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."
To create the Invincible Orange flavor, DPS first had to determine which flavor qualities of oranges it desired -- from sweet to tart, that of a fresh orange, sweet like marmalade or a sour candy. Inside the R&D Center, brown bottles of flavor keys line shelves, and when combined properly, creates the ideal blend, the company stated. An orange flavor profile might include 12 different compounds, according to 7-Eleven.
To come up with a "bullet-proof formula," as Thomas calls it, product development scientists create numerous prototypes and test them with consumers. To be selected, a new product must surpass specific hurdle rates during consumer testing, often using a nine-point Hedonic scale, which measures how much participants like or dislike a food or beverage when tasting it.
After the flavor is perfected, the scientists then focus on color, which plays a critical role in consumers' purchasing decisions. So much so, 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 company stated. Typically, the brighter the color, the better, though brown colors are acceptable for Dr Pepper and cola varieties. And atypical colors -- such as blue -- are also a customer favorite, 7-Eleven stated.
The flavor and color profile of Invincible Orange is similar to an orange ice cream float.
Once the flavor and color are finalized, development engineers "scale up" production.
"Producing a flavor concentrate in a beaker can be very different from running it on a large-scale manufacturing line," Thomas 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 the production line, with testing at each step to ensure it meets the original specifications.
"Flavor always comes first," Stephanie Olson, frozen beverage category manager for 7-Eleven, said in a statement. "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."
In addition, the convenience store chain must be aware of flavor trends.
"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."
Olson said her approach is to try to marry old favorites such as strawberry, citrus and cherry with new exotic flavors. Or 7-Eleven will change the name altogether to one that reflects a promotion rather than a flavor that may be unfamiliar.
Slurpee flavors that will be featured in 2010 were tested last summer.
"The trick is to be forward-looking when picking next year's favorite flavors," said Olson. "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."
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