Mars exec talks innovation: 'We're at a fascinating moment, where we will be creating the next relevant portfolio for consumers'
Speaking with Mars Global Corporate Innovation Director Paola de Almeida, FoodNavigator-USA asked how a company such as Mars which operates in the food, gum & candy, and pet care industries, defines and approaches innovation across it several product portfolios.
"Innovation is about solving consumer problems through new products, services, and business models that evolve our business and create value for people, pets, and the planet. It’s about consumers wanting to have a better conversation with brands, better ingredients, or simply needing something new or novel," Almeida told FoodNavigator-USA.
"If you’re clear on that promise, the offering can be highly relevant and deliver on multiple needs – whether a legacy or a new brand."
Taking the company's Ben's Original rice brand as an example, Almeida explained how the product line has evolved to meet new consumer demands and need states such as its single-serving 'Plant-Powered' meals.
"It’s a unique single meal, addressing multiple consumer needs from the evolving diet to the environmentally conscious," she said.
In the UK, Mars has introduced Lovebug, a 100% insect-based cat food which addresses the company's commitment to continually exploring the use of alternative and environmentally friendly protein sources.
"We’re helping drive the availability of alternative protein solutions in a more sustainable way for a growing pet population. Additionally, the insects in Lovebug are fed on surplus fruits and vegetables from local sources; the insect protein is made with 100% renewable electricity and the packaging is plastic-free," said Almeida.
Corporations and startups, a symbiotic relationship?
But where do new ideas come from, and can it be from inside the four walls of a global CPG giant or is it from ambitious entrepreneurs trying to bootstrap their businesses?
According to Almeida, the most impactful innovation comes from the two sides working together towards the same goal.
"Ironically, there's a very symbiotic relationship between startups and corporations. Both want to create novel, sustainable propositions that help scale change in the overall system and get the job done in meeting consumers' evolving needs," she said.
"Startups are generally laser-focused on resolving a select few problems, which likely helps them move faster. Yet, they may lack the resources and the capability to bring it to a place where it can unlock broad systemic change and scale to the masses. We've been very good at making a solution scalable and repeating those experiences at Mars."
A prime example of this mutual working relationship is when Mars acquired KIND in 2020. While KIND may not be considered a fledgling brand (far from it based on its reported $5bn acquisition transaction) it was once a startup with the same commitment to delivering new product innovation in the better-for-you snacking space.
Under Mars' corporate umbrella, KIND has kept up its cycle of new innovation with the launch of protein oatmeal, KIND Thins and Mini bars, and Energy and Fruit bars.
Staying ahead of the curve on science and technology is also critical to the company's outlook on innovation, added Almeida, who said Mars is exploring how to use AI, bioengineering, and precision agriculture to create products that anticipate consumers' expectations and needs.
"Our Royal Canin premium pet food brand at Mars is starting to offer a tool that helps make precise diet recommendations for dogs and cats from a range of hundreds of products, leveraging AI based on multiple data points," she noted.
Having the right people
Mars and its continual pursuit of delivering on consumer-led innovation starts by having the right people in place both internally and externally, Almeida added.
"Today, the very definition of relevance and innovation context is evolving, and we need to evolve how we’re operating with the right networks, internally and externally, seamlessly," noted Almeida.
"It means we bring early the folks who understand the consumer, the folks that deeply understand the combination of science, technology, and manufacturing, to realize the best route to market. You need to have folks that can aggregate disparate data points, which will create a competitive advantage," she said.
"From the very front-end, we need to have clear innovation briefs and be laser-sharp on the consumer jobs to be done and the critical success factors that will make it win."
New directions: 'We're at a fascinating moment'
While Almeida did not specify what types of new product innovation global consumers can expect from Mars in the future, she did share that whatever the company does bring to market will be based on deep consumer listening and understanding backed by data and a changing demographic consumer landscape.
"We're at a fascinating moment, where we will be creating the next relevant portfolio for consumers, providing continuity in delivering beloved staples that will delight consumers every day and form new memories," she said.
"We realize what got us here won't connect us to the next frontier, which creates an open canvas for what we can offer and is exciting."