From Zombie Skittles to gum containers, the Mars Wrigley Global Innovation Center takes products and packaging to the next level
By Jessica Wohl Published on November 18, 2019
Illustration by Tam Nguyen
Illustration by Tam Nguyen
If you expect to catch a glimpse of Oompa Loompas cleaning the chocolate river that leads to the M&M’s production line in the Mars Wrigley Global Innovation Center, think again. The modern building in an industrial section of Chicago has much more of a corporate feel than a fantastical bent. Still, it’s clear the team takes its décor seriously. A winter garden on the first floor includes a rotation of plants such as cocoa and peppermint, complete with small signs explaining what they are, to showcase ingredients used in the company’s products. There are giant re-creations of product packaging, too. Walk a little farther and you’ll find a Skittles vending machine that dispenses the colorful, fruity candies all day, and for free at certain hours.
Mars Wrigley employs about 34,000 people worldwide. Roughly 400 of them are based in the innovation center, including the teams who work on consumer testing and product development. This is where products like M&M’s, Snickers, Skittles, Juicy Fruit, Extra, Starburst, Orbit, Twix and Dove—to name a few—come for testing, refining and, perhaps, to have a new variety added to the line. This is also where consumers come in to try out products—both in the early stages of development and when nearing completion—providing feedback so products can be reformulated, and tested again and again, before they hit stores. “We’re kind of like the ground zero of testing,” says Katie Hernandez, Mars Wrigley’s VP of research and development for the fruity confections business unit. Response to competition Innovation centers like this are the first line of offense for big packaged food makers such as Mars Wrigley, the confectionery arm of Mars Inc., which are losing ground to smaller, more nimble companies. As recently as July, Accenture issued a report called “Technology Vision for Consumer Goods 2019” with a sobering finding: Large food and beverage companies have seen their market share at retail decline over the past few years from 33 percent to 31 percent, while smaller companies climbed from 17 percent to 19 percent. So it’s important for big marketers to find the trends first, and that’s where testing plays an important role, providing feedback to help shape the final products well before they hit shelves. Getting new candies from established brands out in the market with flavors that consumers are interested in, such as the sour lines launched by the likes of Mars Wrigley and rivals Mondelēz International Inc. and Ferrara Candy Co. in recent years, gives the larger players the chance to maintain their lead and keeps their brands relevant in the minds of shoppers looking for the next new thing. Too often, innovation centers are shiny experience centers that serve as places for consumer packaged goods companies to bring their customers—meaning the retailers that sell their goods to the end consumer—and showcase their prowess, says Brian Doyle, managing director of product and service innovation at Accenture. “Good innovation centers are sort of messy, they’re a place of experimentation,” says Doyle. The Mars Wrigley Global Innovation Center, on a recent visit, did not appear to be at all messy. But it screamed of experimentation. The consumer testing center has a clinical look, with bare walls and stainless steel tables. Here, products can be shown as bare bones as possible, appearing on a lazy Susan in clear cups or on a white sheet of paper. Colors in the room can be changed by the team to fit the desired mood. Testers will often get a saltine cracker and water as palate cleansers between takes. One day, consumers might engage in one-on-one conversations with a brand team. On another, they could be part of a focus group sampling new products. Then there are the so-called trained descriptive panelists, who receive months of training so their palates can detect subtle differences during quantitative and qualitative testing. They commit to testing products for Mars Wrigley in part-time roles that can last three to five years. And the company’s innovation experts can watch the process from behind a one-way mirror.
Upstairs, some of the behind-the-scenes magic happens in a confections lab that looks a bit like a home-economics classroom. It’s here that Mars Wrigley tinkered with one of its newest products, Skittles Dips. The yogurt-coated lentils (that’s the corporate term for pieces of candies such as Skittles and M&M’s) took 18 months from idea to a U.K. launch in June. A slightly different version—the packaging includes the word yogurt, not yoghurt as it is spelled for the British market—hits U.S. shelves in February. The idea came about as Mars Wrigley considered what consumers were telling it in research and what they were seeing in the market, including their desires for different flavors and textures such as creamy confections. “We know coating. How else could we coat a Skittle?” asks Hernandez, who collaborates with product developers and packaging and process development experts, as well as connecting with factories, sales, ingredients suppliers and marketing. “There is a higher level of confidence that we could scale that,” says Hernandez. In the test kitchen, which was renovated earlier this year, product developers can tinker with innovation projects on a smaller scale. Stainless steel workstations give the space a modern-day industrial feel. The confections lab has enough space for about 10 people to work at a time. Movable storage units allow employees to keep the flavors, ingredients and prototypes they need at the ready. Equipment in the lab includes a tabletop kettle, mixers, induction cooktops, blenders, grinders and a freezer. Next door, the wet lab, or coating room, is where processes such as “panning” (tumbling candy pieces in a pan to coat them) happen—although on a smaller scale than when products are ready to be made at a company factory, such as the one in Yorkville, Illinois, about 50 miles away. Here in Chicago, developers can create smaller batches of products such as Skittles and Starburst gummies, trying out different coating techniques and preparing samples with different flavors to hone in on the final choices.
Before stepping into the lab, visitors don lab coats, hairnets and goggles. They also get a set of corded earplugs, which come in handy when machines start whirring. A look at the process Late last month, Mars Wrigley scientist and Skittles Product Developer Jessica Louie conducted a flavor coating test for a visitor. Seven small plastic containers sat on a counter. The first contained strawberry-flavored lentils one step away from completion as they hadn’t been stamped with an “s” yet. The other containers held discs of yogurt coating, polishing gum, polishing glaze, red color and two liquids for the flavor choice: strawberry shortcake and rosé. The ingredients are used to make Skittles Dips, the yogurt-coated version of the fruity confections. After sniffing the liquids—by waving a hand over the container to bring scents to the nose—rosé is chosen. Louie reveals a container of melted yogurt. It’s warm, gooey and sweet, and ready to coat the dozens of Skittles she places into a stainless steel circular contraption known in the industry as a tulip pan or an onion pan—a scaled-down version of the equipment used in the factory.
Soon, the lentils are tumbling around in the stainless steel container. The friction of them sliding against each other begins to smooth the yogurt coating that she adds bit by bit, using one of her gloved hands to gently increase the amount of coating. The process looks simple but is difficult to replicate. It’s much easier to stand back and watch the panning process. Watching panning is like watching clothes tumble in a dryer. Rather than the smell of dryer sheets, there’s a sweetness that hangs in the air. With each rotation—which can be sped up or slowed down with the turn of a knob—the yogurt sticks to each lentil and the coating continues to smooth. For the sake of time, the polishing agents are omitted. And, since this is the testing lab, the samples need to stay here. What happens in the lab, stays in the lab, at least for now. Soon, it’s time to taste the strawberry rosé Skittles. The flavor is unique, strawberry with welcome notes of a glass of wine made for a hot summer day, but not cloyingly sweet. It is not one that is available in the packs of Skittles Dips hitting the market, at least not at launch. Perhaps a line of beverage-themed Skittles will be considered in the future. Skittles Dips are just the latest iteration of Skittles. Jane Hwang, Mars Wrigley’s VP of marketing for the fruity confections business unit, also worked on the 2018 U.K. debut of Skittles Chewy, essentially Skittles without the hard shell. Mars Wrigley takes great care to make sure that it stands by a brand’s heritage. But it is also increasingly aware that, in a market in which smaller startups are eating away at larger brands, candy brands in particular need to do more to stand out. “How do you make sure it’s still a Skittle?” Hwang asks. The recent introduction of Zombie Skittles began with Edelman, one of the agencies it works with. “I don’t believe that we can’t do it,” Hwang recalls saying when the idea was presented. Still, there were guardrails to consider. When someone opens a bag of Zombie Skittles, some lentils in the package taste like they should. Others taste like one of the most rancid concoctions of all time. Essentially, it’s a Skittles take on an item that is truly a treat or a trick. Mars Wrigley had to decide what level of bad flavoring was gross yet not too offensive. It’s not exactly a new concept, although it’s new to Skittles. Jelly Belly, for instance, has taken the hidden bad flavor product so far as to sell its BeanBoozled line of jellybeans with a spinner, so snackers are given a color to taste. Its brown jellybean might taste like chocolate pudding or canned dog food, while a speckled peach colored bean is either peach or barf. Hwang appeared at a Mars Wrigley global associate town hall meeting in October where executives took the stage to test Zombie Skittles. She stood next to executives dressed as Dracula, werewolves, masked animals—one wore a bright yellow suit festooned with Skittles—to sample the product. Hwang came prepared, holding a small cup that could be used as a spittoon. Skittles Dips, Zombie Skittles and other candies have been tested here. The global innovation center also houses a lab space for gum and mints and another one dedicated to chocolate. Throughout the building, there are chambers that mimic the environments of transportation, warehouses and retail shelves, all to test how the products would hold up before they get to the end consumer. Beyond the lab Developing the right production process also goes beyond the lab. Hernandez—who began at Wrigley in 2003 (Mars acquired Wrigley in 2008)—remembers when the U.S. chewing gum team wanted to adapt a circular container used in China for Eclipse gum. Some members of the team headed over to the Chicago Auto Show to study cup holders—to make sure the container would fit inside. The problem: There was no standard cup holder size. That’s when team members realized they could copy the diameter of a Coca-Cola can, which is cup-holder friendly, to determine the dimensions of the Eclipse container. The testing process in packaged foods, it seems, could lead to even more iterations of products coming out faster as existing brands try to extend their reach. “It used to be that experimentation was something that happened in the lab, by the R&D department,” says Doyle. Now, companies want to bring products out with shorter timelines. “Consumers are engaged in the innovation from the very beginning,” says Doyle. Companies might, as Mars Wrigley does, bring consumers into the experimentation process. They might even launch products with temporary packaging, perhaps at an independent grocery chain rather than engage in a full-blown pitch to Walmart or Kroger, to gauge interest and gather feedback. “It’s about thoughtful experimentation, and when there’s enough evidence,” getting out there and scaling quickly, says Doyle.
Web production by Corey Holmes. Illustration by Tim Bradford