Dan Michael, the R&D Director of Mars Direct, told "the story of how and why a personalized chocolate business was started and grown within a mass market snack food company." He briefly described the evolution of Mars Direct which currently sells, manufactures, and delivers personalized M&Ms and Dove Chocolates. "We're not a candy company; we're a personalized expressions company," Dan emphasized. "We make special moments more magical. The giver makes meaningful moments more magical through personalization." Personalized M&Ms are used at birthdays, weddings, company bashes and sporting events. "My Dove" chocolate bars, with specially printed messages on the foil wrap, have been used to propose marriage as well as to celebrate events.
Create Your Personalized M&Ms
For each order, you select from among 22 colors and create the verbiage you'd like. Add imagery, including photos.
My M&Ms. I have personal experience with My M&Ms®. I've ordered them for my grandkids' birthdays. They're always a big hit. I learned about them from an online ad at myrecipes.com. It's quick and easy to go to the mymms.com site and use the online tools to select your colors, type in your message(s), and select your packaging. As of June, 2008, you can also upload an image or a logo and have it printed (in black) on a colored M&M.
One of the things the My M&M team has learned is that customers not only want to personalize their candy to tell a story or to commemorate an event. They also want to customize the packaging they select. Depending on the event, customers may choose to have the personalized candy delivered in bulk (so they can pour it into bowls), or wrapped in cellophane bags, or delivered in boxes or tins. Dan reports that the most popular options are currently the 7 ounce cellophane wrapped bundles and the bulk delivery.
My Dove. The customization of M&Ms packaging gave the Mars Direct team the idea to use custom packaging as the personalization mechanism for other snacks—ones that don't lend themselves to printing on the candy. The personalized expressions that customers create for My Dove candy bars are printed on the foil paper used to wrap the candy.
When you visit the Mydovechocolate.com site, you'll discover a wealth of seductive personalization and customization options. You can select the type font, create multiple messages, and select the color of foil wrapping. You can select among a wide variety of gift boxes, with different types of chocolates and different packaging options, e.g., ribbon colors, and so on.
Personalize Your Candy Wrapper
My Dove lets you Create Messages that appear inside each Candy Wrapper
You can select your typeface and create up to four separate 3-line messages. This has become a popular way for guys to propose marriage!What's in It for Mars?
The revenues from the Mars Direct business are small compared to the billions of dollars Mars makes each year from its brands (which now include Snickers, M&Ms, Wrigley gum, and even Pedigree Pet food, among others.). Yet the personalized expressions business adds value and cachet to the brands it surrounds. "We can show that our innovation drives interest in our brands."
"We launched our MARS Direct business because senior management felt we would only grow so much (3 percent on average) pushing snacks thru existing channels," Dan stated. We needed to ‘premiumize' our products."
How Is Mars Direct Doing? Mars Direct is a separate, small, self-contained business unit, Dan explained. It measures its results in revenues, profits, customer experience, and brand awareness. For example, within 12 months, 26 percent of my M&Ms was repeat business. Dan's team finds the Net Promoter score to be a really useful measure of customer experience. "Our score is 55 and climbing." Dan can see a direct correlation between the quality of printing and the scores received: "The higher the print quality, the higher the Net Promoter scores. Our dedicated Mars Direct team is patient for growth, and impatient for profits," Dan reports.
How Did Mars Direct Evolve?
My M&Ms was launched in 2005 after five years of R&D and experimentation. In the early 2000s in the R&D lab, "we began asking ourselves ‘wouldn't it be neat, if we could print personalized messages on M&Ms?' We started talking to people and got buy-in to look into it. We ring-fenced the resources." They were allowed to do some serious testing. They went to Staples and tore printers apart. They partnered openly with many different suppliers and they came up with prototypes that were used to sell the vision.
By 2003, the R&D team had gained high-level sponsorship. They moved to the next steps: get permission to proceed with a pilot and get "air cover." They needed a safe haven to test the value proposition. They got management to sign an Innovation Charter. "It's a document wherein the management team declares and affirms their full support and commitment to the success of the innovation project. It's kind of like a ‘Get out of Jail Card,'" Dan explained.
Between 2003 and 2005, they gave themselves a 90–day challenge to get a print shop production module up and running. "We put our first custom printing machine in the back of a factory. We wanted to get product into peoples' hands and get feedback, so we piloted with employees," Dan explained. The preliminary "consumer" launch was to the company's own associates. "We have a lot of associates—over 5,000 at seven different plants. So we made it available to them. Originally, they could specify custom messages to be printed only on white candy."
By 2005, they were ready to roll out the original "My M&Ms" Web site and custom printing operation. "We had a ribbon cutting ceremony in the little back room we used in the production facility." It was a small shared cross-functional team with its own "dedicated" production facility and its own Web site at MMs.com. The custom product generated lots of demand. It was clearly a win!
In 2006, the small My M&Ms team became its own empowered, autonomous business unit, called Mars Direct. Its strategy includes:
1. Be an engine for innovation in products, packaging, and partnerships in order to increase the value of the global brands
2. Build consumer loyalty and repeat business through direct-to-consumer initiatives
3. Counter commoditization of any Mars brand through personalization and smart customization
By 2007, Mars Direct found that B2B partnering opportunities were so strong that they built out a B2B offering. Other brands wanted to be able to offer customized M&Ms to their customers and partners. Many want to have a "store within a store" to make it easy for customers to order and/or to personalize their custom products. Partners have included the NFL, Disney, and Martha Stewart, among others. MarsDirect also partners with not for profits for fund-raisers. For example, you can order MyDove chocolates with a Susan G. Komen breast cancer cure packaging option. Proceeds from the sale go to the charity.
By June 2008, Mars Direct was able to launch custom printing of faces from photographs.
Building a Smart Customization Business within a Mass Market Manufacturer
Dan Michaels summed up the differences between the traditional Mars culture and the culture of Mars direct as being completely antithetical to one another. "We have a completely opposite business model and culture, Dan explained, yet "we're the best of the big and best of the small. We meet with the President of Mars Snack Food every two months and with his senior staff. We get a lot of support from them. When we get into a crunch or a crisis, they are there for us."
Dan goes on: "We have an innovate/test/learn culture. Things move much more quickly. Mars Direct associates have to live with a lot of ambiguity. When in doubt, test! We know what we don't know."
Next Steps for Mars Direct
Dan Michaels made it clear that theirs is definitely a learn-by-doing model. "We get tons of customer feedback and suggestions, and we have so much data from our Web site, it can be overwhelming at times."
One of the most interesting pilots planned for the coming years is testing in-store personalization. Mars Direct is offering the ability to design and order customized expressions at three retail outlets in the U.S. The next step is to test custom printing in a store.
This is excerpted from my "Smart Customization Comes of Age" Best Practices report, January 8, 2009.