Steve Gundrum believes he's on the verge of making that idealistic vision a reality. The president-CEO of research-and-development firm Mattson is offering marketers a ready-for-market, better-for-you cookie. In return, all the 30-year food industry veteran is asking is that they accept that there are no exclusive licenses on the product, and that they give 1% of sales to a foundation that aims to end hunger among America's poor.
Of course, this is also a big push to develop healthful foods that taste good and a bold experiment in what could be described as open-source marketing-a shared, free product developed collaboratively and available to all who want to sell it. It has already won Mr. Gundrum recognition from, among others, renowned business guru and author Malcolm Gladwell.
Mr. Gundrum's cookies will be sold under the newly-minted co-brand Helpings, which he hopes will come to represent a whole portfolio of healthful offerings.
"Companies get a product that has been expertly conceived, extremely well formulated and consumer tested," Mr. Gundrum said. "It's a turnkey product they need only tweak to fit their manufacturing system, a year's worth of work that gets turned over simply in exchange for 1% of sales to the Mattson Foundation," an organization developed to help end hunger among the 32 million Americans that suffer from it and to educate the urban poor on proper nutrition.
His fantasy, Project Delta, began in earnest last year when he put together three product-development teams: one a typical hierarchical group like those used in the food industry; one based on the open-source model that combined executives from Kraft, Nestle, Kellogg and Mars among others; and another based on a successful approach to programming that calls for a pair of experts to collaborate closely.
Each was charged with creating a cookie that would have a nutritional profile roughly 15% better than top-selling cookies from the likes of Nabisco and Pepperidge Farm-and, of course, there could be no sacrificing taste.
The results of the development teams efforts-strawberry-cobbler, caramel-pecan and oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies-are now being shopped around to any and all food manufacturers, fast-feeders and retailers under the Helpings brand, a moniker and logo created by identity firm Addis.
Mr. Gundrum said "the whole process has captured the imagination of a lot of executives of the food industry," both the big names involved in the open-source development piece and others. And though he declined to name them, Mr. Gundrum said licensing agreements-free ones-are likely to be signed in the next few weeks (and certainly before year-end) with a major package-goods company and a major restaurant chain, both of which are popular household names. Others are also on the hook.
Exclusivity will be the sticking point, said many food-industry watchers. But that's a big piece of the project, according to Mr. Gundrum. He dubbed the project Delta, he said, "Because that stands for change."
Another piece of that change is asking retailers to waive their traditional slotting fees for the Helpings brand in deference to its cause-marketing component.
Based in Silicon Valley as he is, Mr. Gundrum's inspiration is technology, an industry he believes food executives should aspire to emulate as it's "so productive, so profitable vs. the legacy of old-world agriculture and culinary techniques that the food and beverage world has clung to," Mr. Gundrum said.
On first blush, Bryan Mattimore, a principal at innovation consultancy Growth Engine Co., called Project Delta "wonderfully intriguing," especially for the many food companies that have cut back on R&D. Yet he said the missing piece that would make the idea viable long-term, especially to bigger companies, is exclusivity. "If this took off, other companies are going to jump in, so it seems like only a shorter-term win for someone like Nabisco who is obviously looking for longer-term strategic innovation."
`A little bit like love'
Meridian Consulting Group President-CEO Mike Shinall likewise pointed out the difficulties of companies differentiating between products based on the same recipe, though he acknowledged that "taste is ... a little bit like love in that it's highly subjective."
Therein lies the opportunity, Addis CEO Steven Addis said. "With Helpings, there is free licensing, but then the companies' own branding will dramatically affect consumers' perception of the product-and their taste buds-even if it's the same."
How exactly Helpings will be marketed will be left largely to the licensers who choose to market the products Mattson develops or use the brand as a secondary cause-marketing component on existing products that meet the 15%-better nutrition guidelines.
Marketers that license Helpings will have a leg up on the PR front. Mr. Gundrum has developed a close relationship with "Blink" author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote about Project Delta in the Sept. 5 issue of The New Yorker. NBC's "Today Show," a program on which Mr. Gladwell regularly appears, has expressed interest in covering the launch of Helpings and Mr. Gundrum is more than happy to use Mr. Gladwell's popularity to help jumpstart interest in his fantasy project.