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Lori Rothman is the owner of Lori Rothman Consulting, where she helps companies develop consumer-preferred products and packages. She has a B.S. from Cornell University in Nutritional Science and a M.S. from the University of California, Davis in Food Science. Lori is also an adjunct instructor in Sensory Evaluation at Dominican University, in River Forest, IL.
Lori is a Food Scientist and an experienced professional in the areas of Consumer Science and Sensory Evaluation, specializing in consumer products and packaging. Lori is known for leveraging consumer and sensory insights to drive product innovation and business growth. Her experience includes strategy development, department creation and staffing, sensory facility/infrastructure, cross-functional and cross-country relationship building, budgeting, and delivering business-relevant results.
Lori has over 30 years of experience, with successful roles in Consumer and Sensory Science management and technical leadership for consumer packaged goods companies. She is credited with two Packaging Design Patents and a Trade secret, as well as the Charles M. Dudley Medal for ASTM publications that have impacted their field. In 2018, Lori produced a webinar ‘Getting Maximum Impact from your Sensory/Consumer Science Team’ in conjunction with the Kraft Alumni Network, and in 2020 a webinar ‘Sensory Science and the Research Chef’ for the Research Chefs Association.
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: So, Lori, thank you very much for being on the show. We're happy to have you.
Lori: It's my pleasure, John. I'm so happy to be here and thank you for inviting me.
John: Of course. So, Lori, I think that most people in the field not really familiar with your work. However, I think it'd be good just to make sure that everybody is on the same page to hear your kind of story of your journey starting from your food science degree I believe it was all the way up to the kind of your present roles and there's actually a number of past years right now. So I think that if we could just start with your journey.
Lori: Thanks, John. I'm going to actually back up to even before that. So when I went to university, I wasn't sure what the difference was between nutrition and food science. So I sort of randomly pick nutrition. So came out of school with a nutrition degree but while I was halfway through, I thought, oh, wait, I should have majored in food science. So after I graduated from university, I applied for a job on the West Coast and knowing that I wanted to go to Davis for food science. So I got a job and therefore, when I started my master's degree, I was already a resident of California so that I could go for cheaper, right? Then I worked at a company as a technical service rep and I had a smattering, we're talking the late 70s, early 80s here, a smattering of sensory interest and when I went to grad school, I met Dr. Michael Mani and Rosemary Pangborn and I worked in a lab. And so while I was getting my food science degree, I sort of discovered through my research the world of sensory and then came out as a sensory scientist. So I think having the food science degree is a fantastic basis. But I'm so glad that I got to work with Mike and Rosemary and able to round out my background in the area of sensory.
John: Mike, of course, had a big influence on my career, too. When I was still an undergraduate, I got involved with the Tetrad research coming out of his lab with my father. And I think, yeah, I don't even know if we're here right now, that of course, had a huge impact.
Lori: Well, and let me just say that my first job out of Davis was working at Philip Morris, where I got to know your dad.
John: That's right.
Lori: All things come around. And the first time I saw you at an ASTM conference, didn't know you were and said that's the son of Dan Ennis, which is you from how you looked.
John: It's funny. Some people actually come up to me at conferences and think that I am my father and say that I was, we take great care of myself. Anywany, so you worked for Philip Morris. And so then from there, did you go on a Kraft or what was your next job?
Lori: I went from Philip Morris, I was laid off and I tell people all the time, like don't worry if you're laid off. It's happened to me three times in my career and you'll end better. So as laid off from Philip Morris and then I went to work for Kellogg's. And I worked for Kellogg's for a few years. I loved working at Kellogg's, had to move for family reasons and was at Brach candy for six years on the west side of Chicago, which was at the time the largest candy factory in the world. Twelve floors. Fantastic. I got laid off from there and then went to work at Kraft for 20 years, got laid off from there when they merged with Heinz. And now I have three gigs. I share the global sensory director's position at Diageo with my co-director, Janet McLane. We share that job. I have a consulting business lawyer, Rothman Consulting, where I consult in sensory consumer science. And I teach every other year at a local university. I teach basic sensory research. So that's really interesting and fun.
John: Yeah, well, I think one of the things I really appreciate about your perspective is the number of different sides of sensory you're familiar with. And I think that your work on kind of team building and on relationship building, I mean, I know it's actually quite interesting. Some of the audits that you do if I get into trying to figure out, okay, what's going on inside this team, you know, that strong what can be improved, this kind of thing. So I think it'll be interesting, that perspective, first of sensory, usually at a company is in some sort of kind of in-between space. Right? Because we're in between the pure product developers and the marketers. I mean, we're kind of in-between the objective and subjective. So I think it'd be interesting to hear you talk about the different relationships that you think are important in this sensory world and what can be done to help improve this.
Lori: Right. So when I go into companies and audit them, it's based on three platforms. You know, there's the technical stuff. Everybody looks at the technical stuff, budget, how the function is managed. And then there's this bucket called relationships within the function and cross-functional. And I end up getting stuck in careers or situations where the impact of the sensory group is really more limited than it should be due to the inability or lack of desire to meet stakeholders where they are and gradually move them to where you believe they should be. Right?
Lori: About starting small, small wins. What I've discovered and what I tell clients is that try and think like your stakeholders. Figure out what's important to them. See the problem through their lens, and try and address them. Right? Stop promoting yourself as a technical expert and start promoting yourself as a problem solver and idea generator. Those are some of the things I tell folks that I think is really important because you see that there's often a lot of tension. People retreat to their cross-functional silos instead of reaching out, and they don't want folks treading on their turf. And we have to push that around because we get to success when we move together.
Lori: That's what I think is really important.
John: Yeah, that's really interesting. I have noticed, I mean, I do think is one of the biggest problems in sensory has is doing a better job of communicating our value. I think that we have oftentimes sensory scientists when they're just feeling that they've somehow been marginalized. You're a lot of language about no sensory needs to be given a seat at the table, that kind of thing. When Dulce Paredes is on the show, she was saying that sensory needs to stop looking for someone to give them a seat at the table and take a seat at the table. Right? Actually, I just had Trey Sanders on the show as well at Bulletproof and he was saying many of the same things about the need for sensory scientists to stand up for themselves like the experts, and to help the rest of the company. So when you've seen a sensory department really interact well with their colleagues? What have been some of the keys to success?
Lori: Right. So I've heard that just take a seat at the table. And I think that's absolutely true. But I also think you have to go there holding hands with people. Right? So I think what sensory folks need to do is to convince people that you'll be successful when they're successful. That you understand their goals, right? That you want to partner with them to achieve success so that they'll see you as less than a roadblock, but more as an ally. So just an example. I always used to praise R&D. This was a craft publicly and in writing. So if we did a designed experiment and it was clear that consumers could distinguish the samples based on the sensory attributes that were very bright, we had a successful experiment, I put the first line in the report was consumers could differentiate the attributes that were varied, the variables. Good job, R&D. I always said and I said it publicly. I was there to help them. Sometimes they feel that it's a roadblock because we say, well, you have to do this and you have to pass this test and that test instead of working with them or showing them how we can get there. And again, I tell people to stop promoting themselves as a technical expert and start promoting themselves as a problem solver and idea generator.
John: Right. That's fascinating because there's an analogy here, I think, between, okay, there's a similarity, I should say, between sensory departments and IT departments, that oftentimes you'll hear companies complain about their departments IT because their IT departments are stopping them from doing things, right? But same sort of thing here with sensory. I think that sensory with our tests, our discrimination tests, whatever it might be, have been very often. We're the ones who have been bad news. Well, sorry, this savvy sample we generated, they're not acceptable for various reasons. Yeah, I never thought of us as potentially being viewed as a kind of IT like group that is just going to say no.
Lori: I like to present folks with options for research. Right? I like to say we can do this. We can do this, we can do this. So I don't want to say that it's like toddlers, but it's sort of like toddlers. When you have toddler's choices, do you want to wear this shirt or that shirt? And then you feel that you've given them choices? So I get research choices, options outlining the risks, the timing, the costs with each path, and then say that suggests that we work together to solve the problem so that folks feel included. And what I've learned, John. This kind of blew me away when I first learned that but sometimes people just want an opportunity to be heard and their concerns addressed in good faith. We don't always want to have their way, but they want to be heard. But it shocked me when a director I was working with the craft, actually, because I circled around to him and I said, listen, we're not going to do it this way. We're going to do it that way. And here's why. And he said, no, no, it's fine. I just wanted to make sure you heard my point of view. Like, wow! So then I started saying, all right, I'm going to try and think like my stakeholders, right? What's important to them, seeing the problem through their lens, trying to address. And then the other thing is what I call throwing folks when you put it where it doesn't hurt anything. So I'd have developers come to me and they'd want to always include, you know, quat attribute questions that maybe we're not really hitting the mark. They'd want to include, all this natural or is it artificial tasting, which really is in the most sense. And I would say to myself, well, does it really hurt anything if I add an extra question, like trying to say when you can and make deposits into that relationship bank so that when you have to say, no, it's not like you're always saying no.
Lori: And know what has to be perfect and what has to be good enough.
John: Yeah, that's interesting. It reminds me of being an internal consultant. The consultant mindset there that we oftentimes say, alright, look, here's what we recommend, but we can do. You know, you can do a variety of things where we have our recommendations for our reasons, but other considerations that maybe we're not privy to or, you know, maybe there is cost calculations that are really perfect for us to make. We can go around and we can work with what you want. So that's the flexibility. That's interesting. So have you found yourself in your career working more with the product development side or more with the marketing side, like 50-50? Do you feel like you have a particular? Now, how is that pandemic for you in your career? Of all the different groups that sensory has done?
Lori: It's a really great question, John. Thanks for asking. Sensory, I think, really needs and you said in between, they really do best when they're reaching out in many dimensions, many cross-functional groups. So and I've had the benefit of reporting into both product development, both R&D roles and departments, and marketing as well. So when you're with product development, right. You're sort of the right hand for the product developers. And that's great. You're helping them achieve their technical goals. But if you don't also focus on nurturing those relationships with marketing and marketing research, sometimes across the street, sometimes in the same building and now on Zoom, what can happen is that you lose the business perspective. You lose the perspective of what are we really trying to achieve from a business point of view. And that's really, really critical, right? And so you have to work that hard and purposely. If you are working, reporting to marketing research or marketing, then you're involved in all the aspects of the business, which is really fascinating because when we're on the technical side, we often don't think about some of the roadblocks and issues and tough calls that the folks on the other side have to, right? But then you lose your deep connection or you can lose your deep connection to R&D and really involved because now they see us with other, right? Because you're not you're now other. And so you have to really work at understanding the problem that you're facing, the business problem, the technical problem from all sides so that you can address it with all points of view as best as you can.
John: Right. It kind of reminds me of a restaurant we have in front of house. It's a little bit of that where everybody worked in a restaurant, but they're definitely, there can be these two camps. Right? You've got the people that interact with the customers and then you have the people behind the scenes are making the food. I think the analogy is actually, I think it's pretty appropriate because in sensory, we're interacting with both groups. We're having to go interact people who actually make the product and we come out with people who are facing the customers. Yeah, and I think you're right. It is important to maintain that relationship.
Lori: And I think it's important to teach them. To teach both sides what we do. I've had the privilege, at kraft of being part of a lot of internal trainings where we teach R&D, how we can help them, what we can do for them. And we also teach marketing and marketing research, how we can help them and what we can do for them, either directly or by helping R&D. And so I think that's where, that's a link that's often missing in companies where I go in that often people don't understand what sensory does, how they can help. And then sometimes you're seen as a roadblock, as we've said before.
John: Yeah, that's very interesting. Okay, so in your work, you mentioned Zoom, and I am curious about how you feel. Do you think that it's gotten actually easier to maintain some of these relationships now that I mean, I definitely like you said, you're not across the street. Sometimes when there's a building, there tends to be you know, there are two buildings. You've got the people who are in one building, people in a different building, and the people within a building will form a kind of group, right? But now with Covid, the buildings are gone away. Everybody's just in their house. Do you think that Zoom has actually made it easier to build some of these relationships?
Lori: No, John, I think it actually has been made harder, and that's because a lot of the informal chit-chat is gone. So if you would go across the street to the other building every once in a while, because we'd all have to go to the other building, right? Yes, there were all the meetings, but then there was also the chit-chat. And now we're having the meeting. There's there tends to be less of focus on chit-chat. People want to get off the call. The late zoom calls in a row. They want to get off of it. Maybe it's going on in the house or whatever. But so I've seen it. I've seen it harder. Even the folks that maybe we're in your own building, there's no chit-chat. And I think it's been harder to maintain relationships. The other thing, it has much more purposeful, right? So you're not going to bump into somebody somewhere and talk about whatever your project or even something personal. You're not going to bump into somebody on Zoom. It's got to be purposeful. Even in my personal life, since we've moved to pandemic, I've tried to purposefully keep connections by calling people. Like I'll go through my contacts every week, I'll go through my contacts, I'll say, okay, today I'm going to pick the letter G and I'm serious because I have done this. And I'll look through and look at everyone in G and I'll say, who haven't I talked to in a long time? And I'll just call a person. You know text them just to make that connection. So I'll do random letters of the alphabet and I'll say, Hey, I was on C and I came across your name. One person was so happy that I did this. You actually sent me a really nice card afterward.
John: Well, I wonder if maybe we should be applying some of that same thing within our own companies to just reach out to different people in our company?
Lori: Yeah, I think that's a good thing to do.
John: Now, we have a small company, Aigora, I think we have eight employees at present and we will have every day, half an hour, where we just have an open line where we play some music and we just work in parallel as a chance to and we can have a kind of break out rooms and talk.
Lori: You know, when I would go into companies and I would talk to people and they would often have issues with folks, cross-functional or whatever, particularly between sensory and marketing research, because often they are doing product testing. You know, I would always advise, take that personal lunch. Take them to lunch, swallow hard and take them to lunch, and then you'll give this person a different light. Well, now you can't take people to lunch. It's difficult. Way back when I did with my market research counterpart, we actually did it together some while ago. I think it was like ten years ago now. We went to IFT together and we talked about, I gave a talk on why sensory and market research often have different perspectives on things. And I went back and saw the origins of the fundamentals of both fields. And we actually illustrated with skits, you know, what a bad market research, sensory interaction looks like, and then what a good market research, sensory interaction looks like. And then let's hop and help to illustrate because everybody the same times when it's gone bad. So what I do to make it, to make it good, but it has to be useful. You can't conceive a relationship building as secondary to your technical work. It has to be right. There isn't as important with all the other stuff that you do.
John: Yeah, I totally agree with that. Yeah. I mean, if you like somebody and you're just having fun spending time with them and then you're going to work on some business problem together, you certainly are going to be more creative and you're going to be more open minded and you may be able to hear what they're saying. So I think this is really important, especially given how cross-functional sensory is, you know, in businesses, we really should put more emphasis on the interaction.
Lori: And I wish that I had known that as a younger person because when I first started out, I was extremely test-focused. We had these personality assessments and whatever or like how we were at work. And I came out as a primary driver and secondary driver. And so it was all about, you know, it was all about getting stuff done. And I remember I was working with it was my market research person at the time who has since become a pretty good friend. And we were talking about something and he cut me off and he said to me, but are you, a nice person? And I thought, what? Why are you asking me that? We want to get this thing done. And so it took me a long time to actually get to where I am on relationships. Relationships are truly the key to life, and we have to do everything we can to nurture and build them, right?
John: Yeah, I know, I totally agree. Okay, I do want to save time for your advice at the end. But before we get there, I would like to just kind of ask about the aspects of sensory, the things you're most excited about. I mean, I think we've talked honestly, if someone were to simply get the importance of relationships out of this episode, that would be a great value. Probably maybe the most valuable thing that someone could learn. But I would like to kind of get your thoughts on, you know, as you look around and as you've seen throughout the arc of your career as the sensory evolve, what are the things that you think are most interesting right now? Either in the field or the technology is bringing to sensory consumer science, like what are the areas that you're kind of most interested in?
Lori: Well, I think I'm really pleased to see how data analysis has gotten so much more automated. And I think this is a person who used to write SAS code, this kind of stuff. I mean, I don't write code anymore. I don't do a lot of stats myself. But I would see all augmented how there's dashboards. It's all put together. There's dashboards that make it really easy for sensory scientists to get what they need by pushing a couple of buttons. So there's a caution there because you have to know what the buttons do. You have to know what's under the nice dashboard and all of that. But assuming you do, that really fantastic. I'm just excited that this is such a growing field, it's a relatively new field, we're constantly discovering more things, right? And able to do things better. We're able to do things generally faster and faster isn't necessarily good, right? Because it used to be that you'd have something you'd have some time to look at it. There was mail. There were phone calls. You would have time to look at it, to delve. And now you can get it instantly. And somebody wants your point of view instantly. And there's more of a desire to get the top line and move to the next thing. But I think saving all these data into putting them into graph databases, seeing how things are connected is really fantastic. And to help combat that, well, I'm just going to have a service, look at it and move on to the next thing that this data, hopefully, if it's collected properly, assuming it was to live on forever. We should be able to go back and link it to what's coming now as opposed to just not considering it because it was done five years ago.
John: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think if I was going to identify like maybe the biggest technical problem in sensory right now is that historical data sets are often not even remotely well organized and it's a huge amount of work. People say they want to do AI machine learning and it's a huge amount of work to get the data together. And if departments can get their data organized, they suddenly will be able to do so many more things.
Lori: Knowledge management is a mess. Big company, small company. Nobody's doing it well. I was just working on a project and it was from data that the company had collected about 10 years ago. The company didn't have it anymore. They couldn't find it. But the statistician that worked on the project was able to find it. That wasn't from the company. They just had, still had the data in their files. So that's how we were able to pull it.
John: Yeah. Now, I mean, I've worked for companies where important data is in somebody's notebook and you're scanning it. So that's really an issue. Okay, so Lori, we are almost out of time, I do want to get your advice. I mean, you mentioned relationships, but is there more you like to say on the topic or other advice you'd like to give to young sensory scientists?
Lori: Well, you know, I was telling people, don't promote yourself as a technical expert, but for junior people, I would say become a technical expert. Not necessarily talk about it. Right? But study the foundations of the science, read the old papers, take a class in experimental psychology, learn as much statistics as you can, because when you really understand the basics, then when you're presented with a new method, you can critically judge it rather than just accepting it because it's shiny and new. There's a lot of great, but there's also a lot of crap, right? Never stop learning. Keep reading the literature, attending conferences, keep your network. One thing I'll say is it's a great field. People are always willing to help. I've had relationships with sensory people from competing companies, and we helped each other under the table because that's what we do. Don't tell anybody that I said that, John.
Lori: No, keep it in. It's a true story. I used to have relationships. We would help each other from sensory with competing companies. We would help each other, but it went under the table. So don't tell anybody.
John: Okay. I'm sure what you mean is methodology.
Lori: Yes, of course. Nothing confidential.
John: Okay, let me clarify that for our listener, that was a joke.
Lori: It was a joke, yes. But true.
John: Now it's good. I love our field. I really feel a lot of love for sensory. Whatever reason we've gotten I'm not sure, why is sensory so full of nice people? What do you think the reason behind this?
Lori: I think part of it is because sometimes where the underdog where we have issues with, as you said, having a seat at the table? I think the other reason, probably the more critical reason I think is that it's a pretty small field, right? It's really a small field. So if you go to a couple of conferences a year, if you go to Pangborn or SSP or whatever, you're going to see everybody. You're going to just keep seeing the same people over and over again. Eventually, you'll have to get to know them. Right? And because it's small, you always want to be open because you want to be able to help people. And also you don't want any bad blood going around because it is a small field.
John: I think you're right. And in sensory people anyone is interested in the experience of life. I mean, usually what percentage of sensory scientists are foodies? It's got to be like close to a hundred percent. Like, these are people who generally would rather have one nice bottle of wine than like, you know, go to some party where they're going to drink a bunch of poor quality wine.
Lori: And it's always great to go to dinner with sensory people because we'll say, wow, this tastes terrible. Come here, taste this. It's really bad. Look at the so-and-so sticking out of it. My God, the cinnamon's overwhelming. Come try this.
John: Right. And maybe, it is just a happier people because if you're paying attention to your experience rather than just moving forward with blinders on, I think you probably are enjoying life more. So, yeah, this is really interesting. Okay, Lori, this has been great. I love talking to you on a busy day. Keep going but we have to stop now. So anything else you want to say? How can people get in touch with you? What's a good way for them to connect with you?
Lori: Well, I'm certainly on LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org, and it's been my pleasure and privilege to share this time with you, John. Thank you so much for inviting me.
John: Okay, great. Thanks, Lori. Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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