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How smart software and data help food innovation take flight

8 min read
AUTHOR: Elisa Roche

Far from being dull, data collection and analysis is now a crucial part of the food industry – especially when it comes to research and development.
Head of Global Bakery R&D at Mondelēz International, Norberto Chaclin, shares his thoughts on the power of effective data gathering to make your innovation work harder for you and ensure you’re not flying blind. 

If you’ve ever thought data was for number-crunching staff in a different business department to yours, think again. Gathering data can open your eyes to the problems you might have, while the right software can open doors to innovation, helping you use that information to achieve success.  

Imagine flying a plane back in the early days of aeronautics. The pilot would be faced with a plethora of dials, gauges and switches, with no way of knowing what might lie ahead unless they were in radio contact with various towers along the way. Everything was a manual process. Nowadays, a pilot can practically fly a jet with one finger, because they can find out if their plane has enough fuel, what the weather is like at their destination, and if the wind is going in the right direction at the press of a button, with very little interaction from others.  

That’s the analogy Norberto Chaclin uses when describing the journey his R&D team at Mondelēz International had to go through when trying to collate the business’s innovation portfolio. At Mondelēz, the name behind some of the most well-known brands in snacks – Oreo, Belvita, Ritz and Cadbury’s to name a few – Norberto’s team is dealing with hundreds of projects across the globe. “Mondelēz is a spin-off of Kraft and has acquired a bunch of companies along the way,” he explains. “It very much has a new company mentality to it. It’s a giant startup, if you will. It’s massive, but not very old, which is kind of unique.”  

Mondelēz is able to flexibly manage its brands very close to the consumer, since it operates huge global names like Oreo alongside much smaller, ‘local’ brands in places like India and Vietnam. “The best way to grow each brand is to really understand how it relates to the people in that market – if you put the same emphasis on growth on both local and multinational brands in one country, you’re going to grow the entire business in that market.” After almost two decades working at PepsiCo where a new beverage would be invented and scaled globally, the switch to managing and resourcing thousands of local innovation projects that are relevant to the local market has been a big change for Norberto since he joined Mondelēz. Dealing efficiently with that challenge is what his team and their new software, developed alongside Sopheon, has been tackling. 

Innovation is going to be the vehicle by which we can take these well-known brands, continue to refresh them, make them relevant and take them into new spaces and new markets. 

Norberto Chaclin, Head of Global Bakery R&D, Mondelēz International

Before diving deep into the development of the data software, it’s worth looking at why innovation is so important to a food business like Mondelēz. Like most companies, Mondelēz has a growth aspiration. Growth can be achieved through a number of different aspects, such as selling more existing product through more penetration and more channels, innovating on your core business to bring novelty, innovating to attract new consumers, younger consumers or a different consumer, innovating to enter a new channel, such as e-commerce, or innovating for wellbeing, as consumers are desiring products with less sugar, less fat or less sodium. All of that requires innovation.  

“Our iconic brands like Oreo, LU Biscuits and Cadbury Dairy Milk are massive and have runway,” explains Norberto. “They’re incredibly compelling to consumers and we have a lot of insight into how our consumers think about our brands. They’re phenomenal, well-loved brands, so there’s a lot of scope for these brands to continue to grow. Innovation is going to be the vehicle by which we can take these brands, continue to refresh them, make them relevant and take them into new spaces and new markets. Good innovation does that in a way that is sustainable, and highly incremental to your base business.”  

That explains why a multinational business as large as Mondelēz has such a vast portfolio of innovation projects. Until now – like the pilot flying the old plane – Mondelēz didn’t have the tools to track and measure the success of all of these projects within one system. That’s where Sopheon came in with their software and expertise. 

When we first started developing this software, we had two or three thousand projects running at any point in time in 14 different business units across hundreds of brands,” Norberto says. “We have finite resources to support all those projects, but I didn’t have a good way of knowing whether I have enough people to do Project X in India. How could I? I didn’t have the information to allow me to make changes on a 3000 project portfolio. I have that today.” Norberto and his team are now able to quickly pull and analyse reports on their innovation projects across the globe, looking at how projects are resourced and how resources can be altered or moved to meet other project needs elsewhere, and therefore helping to deliver success on each venture.  

The innovation journey has had some real stand-out moments for Mondelēz, and the turning point came at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Covid hit, Norberto and his team were halfway through gathering data and starting to build their software in a manual way. Practically overnight, supply chains were disrupted, product wasn’t getting to shelves, and priorities had to shift. “We realised there was no room to do innovation because people weren’t even going to the supermarket – why would you put a new product out?” The company asked if they could use Norberto’s “half-baked” database to assess the current innovation portfolio. “They wanted to know whether we could cut 25% of the innovation portfolio to create capacity to deal with the implications of Covid,” he says. “It wasn’t a perfect job, but this database – even in its infancy – allowed us to make decisions about what to cut and what to redirect. We could also track what was actually happening as a result of those changes. So the data is powerful, and I’m blown away by what it can help you do.” 

And for Norberto personally? What have his stand-out moments been since setting out on a data journey with Sopheon? He goes back to the flying analogy: “When you’re flying blind, you simply don’t know what problems you could run into. The ah-ha for me is that the simple but relevant data opens your eyes to problems you didn’t know you had, issues you didn’t know you had to solve. I’ve developed a huge appreciation for what data can do, even when it comes to innovation where the data has nothing to do with the individual innovation projects. The data has to do with the collective bulk of projects and the impact they have on our organisation. That’s the most dramatic insight.”  

Of course, all innovations bring unique challenges. R&D teams need to think about the problems they’re trying to solve, whether the changes or new developments they’re making are relevant, and the criteria they need to meet to ensure innovations are going to be successful. Norberto acknowledges that the most brilliant innovation may fail because the right resource wasn’t allocated to take it to the last mile. However, developing and using this new data software has been a key ingredient in ensuring that innovations at Mondelēz are successful.   

Finally, Norberto explains: “Don’t underestimate the power of data. It might feel like you’re flying the plane just fine, which is what we thought. Many companies, ourselves included, have been flying this innovation plane for years. And it works. But you don’t realise what you don’t know until you have the data to look at. So don’t underestimate the power that information can give you and the efficiency that it brings in how you deploy your resources to make your innovation work harder for you. That’s the big revelation.” 

If you’re keen on all things foodie, the Table Talk podcast, brought to you by Food Matters Live, explores every aspect of the food industry – from food security to industry disruptors, net zero targets and food health claims. You can subscribe via Apple, Spotify, Google or your preferred podcasting platform.