"You hear about a lot of ideas. And none of them looks like a fit. And that can be hard," admitted Debra Sandler, Chief Consumer Officer at Mars Chocolate, the company whose 2010 launch of M&M's Pretzel Chocolate Candies all but added a new category to the U.S. snack-food business.
"What should you be looking for? The insight that's the closest to the undone job, the needed thing," she told the Association of National Advertisers' (ANA) 2011 Creativity conference in New York. "Dig into one or two of those insights. Big ideas often don't come until execution."
Parent company Mars didn't start by looking for a pretzel/chocolate candy combination to extend its M&M brand. But a convergence of several ideas (people like pretzels; they also like sweets; they like to snack, but they also watch their calories) and technologies (Mars had the manufacturing processes in place that it could protect with a patent) that came together "for a big idea that we could blow off the map".
Innovation itself has become a 'big idea' in marketing, and Sandler claimed privately held companies such as Mars have an advantage in achieving it over the likes of Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo – shareholder-sensitive places where she held key marketing posts before joining Mars in November 2009.
Sandler offered the ANA audience "some thoughts and doodles from my notebook" that addressed new products, new businesses, new ways of working. "I often wonder: is [innovation] taught? Is it something in your DNA? Or is creativity a blend of things that come naturally to some people but can be learned."
Presuming that some learning is part of the process, Sandler listed her "top 10 tips for innovation" (and action points for each).
Sandler joined Johnson & Johnson in 1999 after 13 years at PepsiCo. At the time, the company's nutraceutical group (a nutraceutical food is supposed to contain health-giving additives or have medicinal benefit) wanted someone with food experience to launch a division that would manage the sweetener Splenda, among other products.
"Everyone in the building was on board. But a group working on products and ideas without senior-level support has a very difficult job." The simple truth, she added: "Innovation does not always work. And what you don't want is really bright people thinking they have to take too much of a risk going into white space, as they'll be fired if it failed."
So, it's not just legions that make a "tribe" for Sandler. It's loyalty and commitment, from top to bottom.
"We lost $100 million for Johnson and Johnson. But, no one batted an eyelid. 'You know what,' we said, 'this is going to take some time – maybe 100 more times than we had planned, but let's keep going.'
Support came right from the top. Bill Weldon, Johnson & Johnson's Chairman/CEO, started talking about the projects. "Sometimes we forget the simple cues we can send to an organization," Sandler said. And, to her group's advantage, Weldon didn't. With his very public support, "the place went on fire."
"Something that drives sales," Sandler told the ANA audience, is an incentive "that really doesn't drive a creative team. It's a business challenge, a business issue. But it's not a dilemma."
A dilemma in the candy business: people no longer want to walk down the candy aisle in the supermarket. And, when the do, they're confused by what they see.
That starts to frame a dilemma for Mars, a company whose chocolate brands, in addition to Mars bars and M&Ms, also include Snickers, Dove, Galaxy, Mars, Milky Way and Twix. By focusing attention on immediate problems with powerful brand consequences, "people start to ask the really tough questions" that can lead to new products and new business opportunities. "'How do we drive a 5-percent sales increase?' doesn't have the same impact."
Sandler spent her first six months at Splenda traveling around the country, listening to people in focus groups. Yes, she allowed, she also read "every piece of research" she could find. But it "wasn't the same" as being in the presence of people talking about the challenge of losing weight and framing their concerns around health in the low-sweetener category. Sandler told the ANA assembly that one consumer's comment focused an entire discussion: "At least get me a skinny coffin."
Listening in on such conversations "can be a great way to develop a gut – an ear – for what people are thinking about."
So, it's no surprise that Sandler still watches the supermarket aisles carefully. "I love to sit there and watch people looking at my shelves – what they pick up, what they put down."
For the audience of marketers, she advised, "Spend the time to be curious. There are things that may not register at the moment as a 'big idea', but they can be the foundation of good sustainable innovation down the line."
When approaching her role at Mars, Sandler looked back to the 13 years she spent at PepsiCo. "One of the senior leaders there once said, 'If it's not broken… break it.' Sometimes that can scare people, but that's what you need to do to see how something works. It's like kids playing with toys – to build something new, they start by taking it apart. That's what you need to do in business. And you need to do it quickly."
On a less destructive day-to-day basis, she said, "If you have an idea, play with it… You can't stay attached to one idea too long. You need rapid prototyping. Test it. If it doesn't work, maybe you need a little more of this. Or a little less of that."
Collaboration is important on this. "Do it with people who also enjoy playing around and won't get stuck. Time moves quickly when you're innovating. If there's a great idea out there and you don't find it, someone else will."
Even if a marketer has built a tribe, enlisted support from the front office to the front desk, "you still need to ask yourself: can they march to the same drumbeat? Do they all know their mission?"
For years, she said, "smaller companies" have paid a great deal of attention to the colors on their walls or the books they leave around a conference room. But a good idea doesn't have to be blocked into a small workspace. "Be truly innovative with your physical space," Sandler advised. Not only do such visual cues hint at a different kind of workspace, but more open spaces encourage more open thinking.
"If all of your supply people want to be in the corner, break them up, mix them in with the marketing people and with the sales people. You want to drive innovation and foster creativity… And there's no way that any one function owns innovation. The best ideas come from a diverse team of experiences."
If some of those supply people don't understand the importance of collaboration – if they put up barriers – then "you're working with wrong supply people." And, she added, it's the manager's job to find the people who want to operate as part of the team.
To build that cohesion, a "burning platform" can be a bonding force.
"Innovation often is birthed from a crisis," she continued. Supply might run out, or the main piece of equipment might stop working. That kind of crisis fosters adrenalin and forces a solution.
"Usually, there's some sort of end date involved. And, usually, it's realistic, not crazy. But, somehow, when we're all in that fight or battle, we become more creative. The challenge is to figure out how to take advantage of that creativity."
"Let's not be marketing snobs and think that every new idea has to come from our process." At Mars, a Big Idea Challenge competition invites the entire workforce into the process of innovation. "Everyone in the organization has had the experience of wondering, 'What were they thinking? Don't they see it doesn't work.' And you don't need to imagine how frustrating that it," said Sandler.
"If you're going to be innovative in a business, you need to pay attention. You need to keep yourself open to ideas. Process, of course, does play a role. But we want to have a gut just as we want to have great data."
Sandler recalled a mystery of marketing from her days at Pepsi: "We brought back the Pepsi Challenge because it had always worked for us." It was a great idea that wasn't doing much good filed away in the archives of good ideas:
At the time, RC Cola, another comparable soft drink, had beaten both Pepsi and Coke in one blind taste test after another. Pepsi knew it. Coke knew it. And, presumably, RC Cola had to know it. Sandler told the ANA audience, "If [RC Cola] had executed that idea, we all would have been in trouble… But it must not have had the courage to execute."
In a product launch at Johnson & Johnson, she recalled, the marketing team backed away from its instincts. "We were talked out of what was the right premise – a natural, organic product at the right price with the best taste. But people started to shave around the edges." Some compromises on the "natural" element meant that the taste wasn't quite what it had been. And, at an institution with a responsibility to shareholders, that low, low price might not have produced the kind of margins Wall Street wanted, even though it was a strategic element that would have paid off in the long run.
"In the end, we did not have the courage to fight management."
The flipside of the same kind of marketing/management quandary: on the eve of the 2010 Super Bowl, Mars had bought time for Snickers and agency BBDO had two spots ready to roll.
One featured Aretha Franklin; the second showcased an aging – but still popular – television star who had been an American prime-time presence since the 1950s. In time, each would air. Each had its merits; each had its in-house adherents; and each would score well with American consumers. But, as Super Sunday loomed, the indecision made it all the way up to the highest office, where the chairman had his say:
But, it wasn't the final word. The Mars Chocolate team stood up to the boss. "We told him we really preferred the Betty White spot." The chairman backed off, supported the opinion of the marketers and, said Sandler, "We pushed 'send' and prayed."
The conviction paid off. The Betty White spot became one of most celebrated in Super Bowl history. And, although the Aretha Franklin commercial would score well, it didn't make advertising history.
If you don't fail, you're not working hard enough," Sandler proclaimed. But, with caution, she added, "Of course, you have to work in an environment where failure is not the death knell to your career – a place where you can take calculated risks, where everyone won't tell you you're crazy."
One celebrated case in point: Crystal Pepsi was a product whose time likely would never come. But PepsiCo went ahead with the launch:
"The product failed. But everyone who had worked on it was promoted. The execution of the idea was brilliant, even though it did not work."
With the M&M Pretzel launch, "We didn't know what kind of demand we'd have," Sandler admitted.
Indeed, the projections varied wildly from one Mars Chocolate to the next. "Field sales had one, supply another, marketing a third." And, Sandler said, the spread between all the estimates was no less than $890 million.
"We didn't know what the idea would deliver. In fact, we wouldn't know, until it was out in the marketplace and people could taste, try, and use."
To prepare for all kinds of consumer response, "We created supply-chain flexibility to meet whatever demand we had… We needed to be able to pull all the reins we needed to pull to be successful."
Innovation iterates: when it works, marketers want to go back for more.
The M&M Big Idea Challenge has brought the process of innovation to "people who never thought they'd have a chance to work with marketing." And, in fact, the competition produced a new product idea that will be on shelves in 2013.
About the author
Geoffrey Precourt is the US Editor of Warc
You can read all his papers and reports from recent marketing events at www.warc.com/precourt.