Collin Robisheaux: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Collin Robisheaux from InnoLead, and today, we’re back with a bonus episode – and we’re talking all about Mars.
Well, not the planet, but the somewhat secretive, family-owned, Virginia-based company that makes M&Ms, Twix, Juicy Fruit gum, and dozens of other food and snack brands that you’ve probably heard of. Pet lovers, you’re also in luck. The company also owns an array of pet food brands such as Whiskas, pet DNA services, like Wisdom Panel, and several chains of veterinary clinics and hospitals. And through its Mars Edge business unit, the company is creating new products and personalized nutrition and dietary supplements for humans, like Cocoa Flavanols, which the company sells as a supplement to support heart and brain health. So – how is Mars developing an innovation strategy for such a wide range of products and services?
To answer that question, we sat down with Jean-Christophe Flatin, the President of Innovation, Science and Technology at Mars. He oversees the Mars Edge business unit, and in his eight years at Mars, Jean-Christophe has come to define successful innovation as something that creates value. We talked about how consumer habits are changing in 2021, and some common misconceptions he sees in the workplace surrounding innovation.
Thank you for being here today Jean-Christophe, it’s a pleasure to be chatting with you. So to kick things off, can you tell me a little bit about your role as President of Mars Edge, and also as President of Science, Innovation, and Technology at Mars? And how is Mars incorporating science data and technology in order to fulfill your mission?
Jean-Christophe Flatin: Hi, Collin, and thanks a lot for the opportunity. So my job I have the privilege of having a job that is split into two hats. On one side, I am in charge of functionally driving innovation, science and technology across all the business units of Mars. And on the other side, I am leading the latest Mars business unit, focused on nutrition for human beings. And that is called Mars Edge.
Just before going further, a little probably misplaced thing about Mars – because you may know Mars, of course as the planet, but here we are talking business. So you may know Mars as a company, mostly for its very well-known confectionery brands. But I may surprise you to say that Mars is equally present in food, and is also having its business unit, which is the largest, being in pet care. So Mars is also operating in pet nutrition, and in veterinary health. So second thing you might not know is Mars is still a 100 percent, family-owned business. We are a privately-owned business, and this is the case since more than 110 years. Why this is interesting and important is because no company survives more than 100 years, by a simple coincidence, by a bit of luck, or by a nice product that meets its consumers. The long history of Mars is the byproduct of many reinventions, where we are to innovate, disrupt, and self disrupt ourselves. And this leads us nicely to the role I am honored to have about leading innovation.
A successful innovation is one that creates value — creates value for the company, creates value for the society, and creates value for the broader world in which we operate…
How would I describe innovation at Mars? I think, for me, innovation is about solving high-stake, consumer problems… Solving consumer problems. And we do that through a combination of new products, new services, but also new business models. That’s very important to me, to have a large definition of innovation. And finally, a successful innovation is one that creates value. And of course, creates value for the company, creates value for the society, and creates value for the broader world in which we operate, including the pets. So that’s what I’m doing, Collin.
Collin Robisheaux: Innovation and problem solving are so important when we’re talking about longevity in the business world, and Mars has been around the block a few times. So, what are some examples of tech-related innovation projects that Mars has developed that have been super impactful?
Jean-Christophe Flatin: So let me pick a few examples. The first one, the header I would give you is RenalTech. And let me share with you why. As I shared with you, Mars is present a lot in pet nutrition and veterinary health and what we know is a lot of families has at home, very loved and beloved cats. And when you look at the data, a lot of those cats we know at some point of their life, a lot of them suffer from kidney disease, kidney failure. And because our mission is about a better world for pets, we have gotten into a ‘how might we?’ How might we combine the best of hematology, chemistry and urine analysis and power that with AI, machine learning, and digital learning, using hundreds and thousands of results, and turn that into an algorithm that on the basis of a simple blood or urine analysis could give us a predictive ratio on the status of the kidney of these cats. And this has worked. And the RenalTech is that. RenalTech, which is provided to veterinarians to do an analysis, is providing a predictive score, that helps having a caring plan for cats, and therefore totally fulfilling the mission of creating a better world for that. So that’s one example.
So let’s talk about a second innovation example. And here, the headline and the name would be LoveBug. What we are trying to address here — let’s stay with our cats’ friends — a lot of our cat owners are telling us “you know what? I want to find the best food for my cat. But you know what, I am also extremely environmental conscious. And I would like to challenge you guys to find a way to find the basis for your recipe for my cat food to be so clearly environmental friendly.” So we have taken that provocation. And we have developed since March 2021. In the UK, the direct to consumer business called Lovebug, and the specificity of this cat foods direct to consumer business, it is insect based cat food. So that you can have the assurance that you’re providing wonderful food to your cat. And at the same time, you know, you’re reducing the environmental footprint. So that’s what Lovebug is about my second innovation example.
Collin Robisheaux: You know, as a cat owner and an avid gamer myself, some of those products I’m very familiar with. So that’s fantastic to hear about from the consumer perspective. So I wanted to shift and talk about COVID-19 just a little bit. It’s had widespread impacts across every industry. So what are some of the main takeaways from your last 18 months at Mars? And what are some of the top lessons that you’ve learned from your work throughout the pandemic?
Jean-Christophe Flatin: Thank you, Collin. Probably I will talk about two main themes. The first one is really around adapting to new consumer behaviors because like, as you and I have shifted our behaviors as consumers. Our job as a company is to understand, be curious, learn and explore what’s changing, and how we could fit into that. And the other one is really around what can be our role working and supporting the supply chain resilience around us – but let me come back to adapting to new consumer behavior. Here again, better speaking school examples. I talked about our veterinary business. And as you can imagine, our veterinary business has been also at the heart of that with dog and cat owners like you, Collin, wondering, “how could I get the best health support for my dog and cat whilst we are in this either lockdown or very challenging situation?” So here we’ll talk business model innovation.
The first thing we had to invent was curbside. What does it mean to welcome your pet in a curbside manner? You may be used to getting your McDonald’s in a driveway manner. But doing that in a clinic was pretty new and we had to invent that. The other thing that happened at an unprecedented speed is the development of teleconsultation, which is: you know what? I am a dog and cat owner. I see my dog or cat seems to have an issue, but I’m not sure if this is just something benign or something that is more dramatic. Imagine if I was asking you to take your cat in your house, Collin, and if I was a [veterinarian] and you and I would have a discussion you would describe the symptoms, you would help me, tell me, sharing with me what’s happening to your cat. And, as a vet, I could give you a first diagnosis, that would be on, you know what, I think you’d better drive as quickly as possible to the clinic, or here’s what you could do. So teleconsultation, that was on a screen, has happened and emerged and developed in weeks, at a very, very [fast pace]. So I think that’s, that’s number one.
The second one is really around what we have done with consumers that were at home, trying to stay in shape, trying to be in great shape themselves, working on their fitness, and were looking for a solution. Here, with our Foodspring business, which is one of the Mars Edge businesses in Europe, is really dedicated to providing fitness food solutions and products. What they have done is they have really developed content, advice, support, recipes on an everyday basis for consumers in lockdown at home to be this mental and emotional partner, providing them with solutions. So this has really been about adapting and supporting accompanying consumers in their new consumer behaviors.
In parallel, I talked, Collin, changing gears – supply chain resilience. This pandemic, this huge crisis, has bought to the eyes of the world, that large companies have a big role to play, continuing to play, to share our knowledge when relevant with the broader world. So just to give you one example of what we are continuing doing, we had started before we are now accelerating, we have a Global Food Safety Center, where we have researchers from around the world trying to put their brains into learning and developing the best food safety knowledge. And what the pandemic highlighted is the link between food safety and food security. If a food is not safe, it’s not food. And that helped us realize that 30 percent of the crops worldwide are wasted, cannot be eaten for human beings, because they are not safe. So as we were working with the United Nations, preparing the food summit, we have put our Global Food Safety Center at the disposal of a pre-competitive work, really working with NGOs, with academics, and with competitors, in continuing to accumulate more knowledge in food safety, and sharing that with the broader world. So that’s the two things I wanted to highlight, really understanding with curiosity, the new consumer behaviors and adjusting, and doing your part to the supply chain resilience for the border world.
Collin Robisheaux: Focusing on the consumer is is so important, especially now with such drastic shifts due to the pandemic. So you talked a little bit about curbside delivery, and really making sure that products are as safe as they possibly can be for the consumer. So I wanted to ask you – considering the incredibly large consumer base that Mars has, are there any significant changes to the consumer experience that you’ve noticed? Or any other noticeable data points or trends that have really stuck out to you over the last 18 months?
Jean-Christophe Flatin: That’s a great question, Collin, probably the first thing that comes to mind is I see more and more desire, and need for personalization in our consumers. So the one size fits all approach feels less and less relevant. And as a lot of us have devices in our pocket or under our wrist, there is more and more the expectation that ‘how could we turn all this data, all this knowledge into something that better fits my life, my style, my social life? How can you guys in the companies providing products and services really bring me something that matters, and is relevant in my life?’
A great example is Foodspring, again in Europe, is offering the consumers a quick questionnaire at the beginning called the body check. And by answering those very simple 24 questions, it then allows the dialogue between the company and the consumer to be much more bespoke, really fitting into your life. So really, I see personalization powered by data and digital as a massive trend. The other one, clearly, is direct-to-consumer. I think the way we purchase, all of us, has dramatically changed. Of course, it was on its way before but I think it has been dramatically accelerated. And therefore what it means if you look at it now from a company standpoint, is we need to be present for consumers all along their shopping journey. And we may love to have a wonderful experience in a specialty shop, we may want to click, drive into a retail shop, we may want to spend time or be quick on our mobile check in our D to C site, we need to be there in a seamless manner, so that as consumers navigate that, we all the time give them an experience that is respectful, engaging, and relevant. So really, direct-to-consumer and omni- channel is a big, big second trend. And the last one, of course, because beyond the pandemic, we have all witnessed what has happened from a social evolution manner. I think inclusiveness is a huge trend. We need to be there, and we need to be there for everyone. And as I was talking about personalization … By being more personalized, we can be more inclusive, making sure that we have the relevant, right, engaging solution, product or service for everyone. And that’s something that is really close and dear to our hearts. So that would be the mega trends I’m seeing and certainly that have been accelerated in the past 18 months.
Collin Robisheaux: That’s great insight, Jean-Christophe. So I’d like to shift a little bit here and talk about the trends that you’re seeing in the field of innovation right now, you know, as a bit of an innovation expert in your field, what are some of the common innovation misconceptions that you think should be weeded out of innovation teams as they try to get to that next level?
I’m not opposing creativity and process; I am all about designing the right framework in which creativity can foster.
Jean-Christophe Flatin: I’m glad you asked. I’m laughing because I don’t consider myself an expert. I consider myself an avid learner on that. But busting those myths, or this misconception is a big part of my job. So very happy to share a few of them with you. One of the first myths I get is, “J-C, is innovation about creativity, or is innovation about process?” And I think, that’s not mutually exclusive. Innovation is about fostering creativity in a very clear framework. And therefore I’m not opposing creativity and process; I am all about designing the right framework in which creativity can foster. So that’s myth busting number one, because for me, innovation is first of all, a resource allocation game. And if you want to put your bets in a proper manner, you’d better have a framework to put your bets. So that’s myth number one.
Myth number two – people I hear “Wow, you know, when you have a good innovation, when everybody has goosebumps, and everybody’s inspired?” Guess what, that’s great. But not good enough. It’s good to have goosebumps is that a strong, alone predictor? The answer is no. Why? Because what you need back to the framework is when innovation needs to have a purpose, it needs to have a clear objective, an objective that is specific, measurable, reachable, and time bound. And by the way, starting with a consumer problem. As we shared before, you may have goosebumps, but if there is no consumer problem being solved, if you’re not specifically addressing one of your strategies, with this new innovation, that’s not the point. So yes, about being inspiring and visionary, but it needs to be smart, specific, measurable, reachable, and tied down as well.
The third myth that I hear very often, which is, “Wow, you want innovation? Just talk to your R&D department; you can delegate that to them. That’s all good.” The answer is no. Of course, R&D has a big role to play in innovation. But innovation is much bigger than R&D. R&D is an enterprise-wide game where all function, all people need to be there.
And finally, if I save one very quickly for the end, Collin, the fourth one is about “yes, you guys are a large company, you will find all the solutions yourself.” The answer is no. We may be large, we may be old. But most importantly, we are curious. And when you’re curious, you’re humble. And when you’re humble, you know that no company today can own all the solutions. So we have a lot about partnerships, opening, learning promises, and finding combination of capabilities with partners that help us move. So these are a few of the most common myths or misconceptions that I hear about innovation, Collin.
When you’re curious, you’re humble. And when you’re humble, you know that no company today can own all the solutions.
Collin Robisheaux: Weeding those misconceptions out is definitely of interest to our listeners, who are designers, innovators, researchers, and developers. And so many of them are asking the question, “How can we create a successful company culture that promotes innovation in every single department?” So how is Mars creating that culture? And what advice would you offer to other innovators who are trying to foster that same kind of connectivity?
Jean-Christophe Flatin: Thanks, Collin, and once again, experience sharing from what I have looked and what works. Number one, it starts with the top. So top leadership, whoever it is, needs to be exemplary there. If the top leadership if the top of the company is not explaining the role of innovation, sharing the crucials, mobilizing everyone, then that will not work.
The second is exactly as I said, in my myth busting, there is a role for everyone on innovation. Innovation cannot be delegated to one person or one function. However, even if this is across the company, we need to be clear about the whole of everyone. Because innovation is a team sport that requires clarity of role, like on the sports field. So second rule, mobilize everyone, but be clear about the expectation of the role we have for everyone.
And finally, of course, I talked about creativity in a framework. But this is mostly about mindset and behavior. And what are the ones I’m looking for — what are the ones I’m trying to nurture, to develop innovation. First, be curious. The world around us is changing is changing dramatically, you said that very well. Let’s be curious, let’s learn from what we have around us. Second, the desire to learn every day. Being humble. We don’t wake up with all the answers. And that’s why we were given curiosity to learn and find cracking today that I couldn’t crack yesterday.The third one is listen. If you want to solve consumer problems, you’d better listen. So put yourself in the listening mode and capture every single detail, it may sound like a detail at the beginning, that could be the genesis of a great innovation. And finally, don’t be afraid to test. Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket and go test, allocate a small amount and give people the right to fail as they test out their new ideas. And with my experience, I would say by fostering those mindsets and behaviors across the organization, with a strong message and ownership, genuine ownership from the top, you are contributing to create an innovation culture.
Collin Robisheaux: You’ve provided some fantastic insight today Jean-Christophe, and that is all of the questions that I have for you. So thank you for taking the time out of your day to join us, and thank you for being here on Innovaiton Answered.
Jean-Christophe Flatin: Thank you so much, Collin, thanks for the opportunity and for the great conversation. Thank you.
Collin Robisheaux: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. I’m your host, Collin Robisheaux. A very special thank you to our longtime host Kaitlin Milliken, who brought Innovation Answered to life. Katie helped to organize and produce this episode, so a very special thank you to her. For more bonus content, subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts or check out our website, innovationleader.com/podcast. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll be back again soon.
Corrections: The audio of this podcast incorrectly refers to Mars’ dog DNA testing business; it is called Wisdom Panel. And Mars considers Mars Edge to be a business unit, not a “program.”