Candy. It can evoke our fondest memories, satisfy a sweet tooth, and be a favorite guilty pleasure. It is also a booming industry, with the confectionary market generating $162 billion in revenue in 2017. The majority of that product is manufactured by a small number of familiar powerhouse brands, such as Mars, Nestlé, Hershey, and Mondelēz International, where Adam Michaels ’06 works as senior director of forecasting insights and analytics. Mondelēz makes many of the world’s most celebrated snacks — Swedish Fish, Sour Patch Kids, Toblerone, Oreo cookies, and more — and leads the charge in confectionary trend-setting. Here, Michaels tells us about the importance of listening to the consumer, what the future of the industry looks like, and how much he loves what he does.
What is your role, and what are your priorities in your position?
I am responsible for understanding our consumers and learning how and where they shop. That means tracking macro trends and how today’s consumer snacks. Are they looking for indulgence or wellness? Where are they shopping for snacks? How and when do they do their shopping? My team also deals with the companies that purchase our products, whether it is Walmart, Kroger, or Costco. We have category-management teams and customer teams working together to understand what shelves should look like in each store. What we put on a shelf at Costco will look very different than what we should put on a shelf at 7-Eleven. My biggest priority is to be the megaphone for the consumer. My job is to bring the voice of the consumer to our conversation. When we design new products, my team partners with other cross-functional teams to understand everything from what types of ingredients should go into a product to what the packaging should look like or what a product should be named.
How do you figure out what the consumer wants?
We hold focus groups all the time. We have special glasses — eye-tracking software — that groups can wear when they shop so that we can track how they look at the shelves and where they look. We go into people’s homes and they explain to us why they choose products and how they put their products away. They’ll explain that they have a secret cupboard high up so their kids can’t get to the candy — or they might even show us where they hide their candy from their partner. We do shop-alongs where we watch customers shop to understand what they’re thinking about and how they make their decisions. When you run out for something like toilet paper, you likely put it on your shopping list, but grabbing your favorite impulse candy is different.
Do snack trends fluctuate as much as other cultural trends?
They certainly change, but I believe strongly that there’s a place for everything. While the way that people want to give themselves a snack or give a snack to someone special might change, there’s always a rightful place for snacking trends. Younger generations care much more about where their products come from and if the company has a purpose. We are also seeing a push from customers for smaller brands due to their perceived purpose. There is less brand loyalty now than there used to be and that’s something that is really important to us to achieve.
What does the future of the snack industry look like now that health and wellness has become such a focus for consumers?
I think it is going to continue to grow. It’s not just about physical well-being; it’s about mental well-being, too. If you close your eyes, what’s better than an Oreo cookie? What’s better than sharing Sour Patch Kids with friends? It’s also about listening to the customer and understanding what types of products and ingredients they are looking for. You used to eat from a box of Oreos at your parents’ house, and that was it. But now do you want to share with friends and need a bigger pack? Or do you need a smaller pack to put in your lunchbox? Or a grab-and-go pack that won’t break? It can also mean adding vegetables to our Good Thins crackers and making some gluten free, which we did. Or making Triscuits non-GMO or organic, which we did, too. We have to listen to our customers
Does the company do anything special to prepare for Halloween?
We are always preparing years in advance. We have fun-sized versions of Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, Chips Ahoy!, and Oreos for Halloween. We have seasonal flavors for products, like pumpkin-spice Belvita or Halloween Oreos, and we try to engage with each season.
What’s the company’s best-selling product?
Oreos, by far. A lot of Oreos. It’s fun – we have new flavors all the time. Apple pie is out right now, and we just did a limited-edition Oreo with Mickey Mouse for his 90th anniversary.
What are your favorite products?
My favorite candy would be the new tropical Swedish Fish! Favorite cookie: the coconut Oreo Thins.
How did you end up working in the food industry? Was this always the plan?
I originally studied biomedical engineering for my undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and after graduating I went to work with what was then a small entrepreneurial company, Capital One Financial. After working there for a while, I decided I wanted to go back to school, and during my time at Columbia I summered at Booz Allen Hamilton. After graduation they gave me a full-time offer, and I worked there for about eight years in the consumer group, specifically the food and beverage sector. I worked the entire value chain of food and beverage from the upfront ingredient providers to manufacturers to retailers, and that’s when I really found my passion for the industry. I hadn’t been actively looking for a new job at that time but a friend of mine knew the CEO of North America at Mondelēz and suggested me for an opening at the company. I got a call the next day.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I have two young boys, Gregory is 11 and Alexander is 8. I review the product portfolio with them when new products come out and we try them together. We even try to create new products in our kitchen and bring them into the office, or we go to new stores during the weekend and look at how the shelves are stocked. The boys really understand our products. That’s what is really special—it’s a whole new relationship I get to have with my boys. That’s why I do this job.