Interview with Sandeep Dadlani who presented on Mars’ customer-centric research and category growth at the 2018 Xcelerate Retail Forum in Boston, MA.
Tell us a little about how your varied and interesting career has informed you around key initiatives at Mars today?
I’ve been a Martian (yes, we can call ourselves Martians) for one year now and already it’s been a phenomenal learning experience, and not just because of what I’m seeing at Mars, but because I’m able to make connections with what I’ve seen elsewhere.
Prior to Mars, I was a consultant and I engaged with almost all the top CPG companies in the world where I focused on leveraging technology to drive top- and bottom-line growth. I can draw many parallels between Mars and my past companies, but I can also see how unique Mars is. Mars is one of the most human companies that I have encountered, and the value of an associate here is emphatically higher than many other organizations. There is a strong sense of Mars being one of the greatest places to work. The openness, humility and the general camaraderie around the organization is remarkable. It’s a private company but it’s a family company, in more ways than one. We might be Martians, but we’re very human!
What are you seeing as major trends and challenges for CPGs today?
There are three main areas that I would like to address for the CPG industry in general. The first one is that we all tend to jump to the conclusion that consumer behaviors are changing. What’s really happening is that big and small companies are becoming more customer-centric and every day we see announcements about companies that have become so intimate with consumers that they have figured out unstated, unmet needs of consumers, and launched a business or grown a business based on that. This disruption for large CPGs is real and they are struggling to become more consumer-centric.
It’s about uncovering unmet, deep, innate consumer needs and designing beautiful experiences. So, consumer centricity is the big trend and it’s not what they want but what they need, always remember that when the consumer was asked what they wanted, they said they wanted a faster horse.
The second area is the idea that companies can process 100 times more data at 1/100th of the cost. This is changing the way we do business. It allows us to flip business models and launch new ones with great success. For example, we’ve launched Connected Solutions in pet care, where we now combine the data around pets and pet owners from all our businesses. We look at how pets consume pet food i.e. Iams, Pedigree or Whiskas etc., then we look at pet owners who use the hospitals for treating their pets, and Wisdom Health for genealogy services and then Whistle to track their dog’s activity. When all this data comes together it allows us to offer new compelling services with recommendations on nutrition and healthcare to ultimately improve the lives of pets and their owners. We can only do this because we can handle 100 times the data we used to three years back and that capability will increase exponentially.
The third area is disintermediation. This is the idea that some CPG companies are not needed at all because a consumer can buy directly from the farmer. This is happening across the industry where consumers are visiting small farms and picking up their groceries directly from the edge of the farm.
How CPG companies evolve, react to and take advantage of these three trends will define their future.
What are a few key points that you believe CPGs must know about AI that will help them move down a path of integrating it into their own organizations as well as in their work with retail partners?
AI will change everything and nothing. To me, AI is one of many technology options. I’ve worked on it for the past four years, and what I’ve found is that most companies are missing the point. The point being – finding the right problem to solve. I have seen many companies investing money in it for no gain. You don’t just do AI for the sake of AI. Before you work out whether you’ll use AI, blockchain or Excel, you must find the real problem.
Recently, we’ve been running a user-centricity design thinking movement here in Mars, where we have focused on finding the problem that our end users and consumer are having. Most CPG companies miss this stage because they’re busy creating problem statements like, “How do we create a connected delightful end-to-end experience for the consumer?” But, if you sit down with consumers and you do design thinking workshops, you come up with simpler problem statements like, “I can’t get in and out of your website in five minutes,” or, “You were out of stock the last three times I visited this particular store. Can you solve this problem in this particular store in the next six months?” These are real problems on the ground that lead to more specific solutions and some of those solutions involve AI.
In Mars, we have an AI Community and we understand that AI is all about data. It’s about finding patterns in data and having the ability to process images and videos, alongside any possible source of data that you can find. The early use cases of AI in Mars have been very encouraging because we have taken the approach of finding the right problem. The early use cases have all been about driving the right content to consumers in select markets. It has been about figuring out how to use machine learning to trade in commodities better where we do a lot of sourcing; it has been working out consumer sentiments towards our products. It has been figuring out demand forecasting, supply chain issues. Quality is one of our five principles, and we have now used machine learning to detect quality issues if there are any, in real time, in our supply chain, in our factories. We’re even looking at AI to understand our reputation with our stakeholders. We are using AI to amplify the same humanity, the humanness that Mars exemplifies in its interactions. In our case, AI becomes the digital armor that makes every Martian a superhero because they can solve bigger and tougher problems every day, and they fell like superheroes doing it. That is the goal, and our early forays into it have been very, very promising.
I’m intrigued by your Xcelerate abstract title – 100x. Can you just give a short summary of what you covered at the event?
I think the CPG industry and my interactions with SymphonyAI, as well, have been very educational for me in the sense that everyone’s trying to figure out what this digital thing is and what they’re supposed to be doing with it. But what is the definition of digital? People define it in their own ways – some people define it from a technology lens, some from a sales lens, supply chain lens, RandD lens – the definition is led by the job title. I define it with a lens of speed with a focus on one thing: how can I help our consumers, our customers, our end users? Regardless of the department or job title, the focus should be to go faster. Not faster by ten percent, but 100 times faster.
Within the idea of 100x faster, x takes on a different value in every situation. In the data sense, this means capturing 100 times more data and processing it, while also finding the real problems 100 times faster. It involves tackling them using agile, using strength, using the latest technologies 100 times faster. So, the question I put to the audience is how we can all try to help our customers and our end users go faster, 100 times faster.
Please tell us something personal about yourself that our readers might be surprised to know about you.
I have a very special superpower – I can make my daughters laugh any time I want. That’s the best superpower to have!
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