When I think of interesting food products, I often think of Bill Mitchell, a legendary food scientist who stumbled upon what would eventually become Pop Rocks.
Hunkered inside a General Foods research lab in the 1950s, Mitchell discovered that mixing sugar with carbon dioxide in his mouth caused them to fizz and pop. The prolific food researcher — who would go on to invent a number of other innovative products like Tang and Cool Whip — filed for a patent on his idea in 1959. It took a couple decades for Pop Rocks to become a part of the 1970s cultural zeitgeist, but the fizzing candy is still sold to kids around the world today.
That’s the thing with food: so much of what has makes it to store shelves, whether Pop Rocks or the popsicle, is the result of magical mistakes. But in the era of smart phones, connected appliances and Amazon Alexa, this may soon change. Increasingly, new products will be less likely to come from happy accidents like that of Dr. Mitchell’s and instead will grow out of insights gleaned from consumer data made available through connected platforms.
Take the recent story about Mars using Alibaba data to create a spicy Snickers bar. According to Bloomberg, Mars used data gathered through the Chinese Internet giant’s various online platforms that showed customers who like chocolate also buy spicy food.
From the story:
That prompted the creation of the Spicy Snickers candy bar, which incorporates the Sichuan peppercorn, the source of China’s famous “mala” (numb and spicy) taste. Typically Mars spends two to three years developing a new product; the Spicy Snickers came together in less than one.
It’s not just Internet giants getting in on the action. Because every Joule sous vide appliance from ChefSteps is connected, the kitchen startup knows what customers are cooking at any given time. The company is able to analyze this data to unearth potential opportunities for new products.
For example, Joule usage data showed one of the biggest challenges time-starved consumers face when creating a sous vide meal is creating multi-ingredient sauces to go with a protein. This catalyzed the company to create a new product called Joule Ready sauces that solves for this exact problem. The Seattle startup has also built an agile production process that allows them to scale up new sauces based on consumer usage data and double down on popular ones.
While data-driven product development has been on the rise for some time, products like the spicy Snickers are a sign food companies are embracing data insights to take new risks and speed time to market. And this embrace of data is only the beginning. A whole host of new startups are building upon the foundation of better food and consumer data to build AI platforms that not only will discover new products faster, but ensure a much higher likelihood of success.
Just as we saw with baseball, there might be some old-schoolers that decry the world of food undergoing its own Moneyball revolution. As for the inventor of Pop Rocks, I suspect Bill Mitchell would have been ok with it.
The reason? His grandson — also named Bill Mitchell — runs a little connected beer brewing appliance by the name of PicoBrew.