ISSUE 02 | INNOVATION
Raising the Bar
Mike Zietek has a dream – if highly secretive – job. He mixes new recipe ideas and customer feedback to concoct chocolate bars and fillings at Mars’s UK HQ. Like his role, Zietek’s title is a bit of a mouthful: principal scientist for global product design and prototyping.
By Clare Dowdy | Photography by Gavin Kingcome
A good sweet is…
I taste chocolate products at least once a week, and a good sweet for me is one where all the flavours and textures combine. Like Maltesers: the centre crunches and dissolves, and when you combine that with the chocolate it creates a melting mix of malty magic.
And a bad sweet…
I’ve had my fair share of disasters in the test kitchen and the pilot plant, which is where we keep all the large-scale equipment for making our products at pilot scale. I once tried to coat Maltesers with a peanut Gianduja, a mixture of nut paste and chocolate. It just didn’t work, it was too soft.
Taking feedback to heart
One consumer – a male landscape gardener in his 30s – said, “A Mars bar’s just too arduous to eat.” I think he meant that the caramel is OK to eat on its own and the nougat is OK on its own, but when you put them together, they combine to create this bolus at the back of your mouth that won’t go away. That comment now informs how I create new products for the Mars bar.
Bars to entry
The trickiest part of my job is getting something launched. It has to be desirable (to consumers and retailers). It has to be feasible, so that it can be made somewhere in Mars’s supply network. And it has to be viable. The absolute worst thing is the viability, getting the business model right. That means balancing the cost of raw ingredients - which is my responsibility - with the packaging, logistics and manufacturing costs - which is the finance team’s job.
We’ve just filed a patent application for my latest invention: an aerated filling with mousse-like characteristics. I’m now busy writing the recipe, but it will take at least eight years for us to get the product spec and process spec right, and for it to then hit the shelves.
Telling you how I came up with that new filling would give away what it is, and if I told you that I’d have to shoot you. I can tell you that I was in the test kitchen, messing around with ingredients, and it happened accidentally on purpose.
New! New! New!
Big innovation projects are my bread and butter. I’ve got three new products – all chocolate-coated centres - launching this year and in 2019. Again, details are under wraps. I work on globally aligned projects, so I’m certainly not allowed to do my own thing. So for these three, I took into account internal research and I looked externally for inspiration, like the trends of health and wellness, premiumisation, and more indulgent experiences.
Innovation – what’s the point?
You can certainly build a company on products that are 80-plus years old, but you need to keep innovating to keep news-worthy. If you’re not generating comments from customers like “have you seen that new product from Maltesers, Galaxy, Mars?” you’ve not got a hope of surviving in the marketplace.
I followed up catering college and a stint as a pastry chef with a degree in food science and nutrition, and spent some of that course working at Mars. I always saw myself as working in product design, and obviously I had a feeling for the chocolate side of the business as I’d trained as a pastry chef. I picked Mars because I’d heard good things about the way they treated and developed people. And the way you’re able to work your way up in the company.
My favourite product
Snickers, because it’s got the most amazing combination of flavours and textures. I’ve done some product innovation around Snickers, but I can’t tell you about it.
Take-out: ‘Good enough to launch’ might work for software businesses but launching a tangible product takes imagination, tenacity and conviction