SAN CLEMENTE, CALIF. — “Channeling your inner Wonka” is how Tyler Merrick describes his company’s approach to product development. A recent innovation from Project 7, the specialty gum brand Mr. Merrick founded in 2008, is called Build-A-Flavor and features two gum flavors that when combined create a third flavor. One variety, for example, includes toasted marshmallow gum and chocolate graham gum that may be chewed separately or together to create a s’mores flavor.
Products like Build-A-Flavor give Mr. Merrick confidence that fresh and whimsical innovation can revive the ailing gum category.
|Tyler Merrick, founder of Project 7|
“My two cents is part of the reason why gum has been declining is it’s one of the few food categories that hasn’t had any bottom-up innovation,” Mr. Merrick told Food Business News. “It has predominantly been owned and run by four global companies, Wrigley/Mars, Mondelez, Hershey and Perfetti (Van Melle). There haven’t been smaller brands that have come up through the ranks and innovated and tried new stuff to help bring people into the category and expand the tent, where we have seen that in so many other food categories (such as) healthy snacks and natural beverages.”
Over the past eight years, Mr. Merrick said his business has had “a lot of left turns and dead ends and fallen bridges in the process, but we’re in a fun place today and learning our sweet spot.” A self-proclaimed social entrepreneur, he launched his company with the mission to support various causes inspired by Newman’s Own, the packaged food company founded by late actor Paul Newman that donates all post-tax profits to charitable causes through its Newman’s Own Foundation.
“I wanted to be Newman’s Own 2.0,” Mr. Merrick said. “They built a whole food brand inside of grocery stores that was everything from dressings to cookies to you name it. I thought I wanted to do the same thing, and ours would be the 2.0 version of it, where this (product’s proceeds go) toward hunger, and this one’s toward clean water, etc.
“I was far from becoming a Newman’s Own 2.0. And that’s part of what our demise was. We went really wide and not deep at all.”
After some “tough times” and temptation to scrap the business, Mr. Merrick rebooted the brand two and a half years ago and narrowed its focus to gum.
“That’s when we came out with the wild flavors we’re known for, like birthday cake, rainbow ice snow cone, and kettle pop,” Mr. Merrick said. “We didn’t have anything else to lose, so we tried it.”
Other gum flavors include peppermint vanilla, front-porch lemonade, coconut lime, wedding cake, grapefruit melon, and red velvet cupcake. Among Build-A-Flavor varieties are cookie dough, which combines cookie dough and vanilla ice cream flavors; key lime pie, which pairs key lime and cream pie flavors; and half and half, with sweet tea and lemonade flavors.
“That’s the fun of why we thought there’s a lot of opportunity in this category — letting people play with their food, have a new experience in gum,” Mr. Merrick said. “If we don’t do more of this stuff — and I feel like it’s more dependent on the smaller brands because for the big guys it’s challenging with their R.&D. departments and just getting things through focus groups alone — you’re not going to give people new reasons to trial gum. Let’s be honest; sometimes they go, ‘That was terrible,’ but at least they’re trying something again. At least they’re experiencing a gum experience and seeing it can have another form for them.”
By May, Project 7 products will be available in about 15,000 to 20,000 retail outlets, including grocery stores, specialty retailers, mass merchandisers and, soon, drug stores. The brand recently gained distribution in CVS and Walgreen’s.
“I meet one of two buyers in the retail categories,” Mr. Merrick said. “One buyer’s response, even with the brand doing well and being fun and innovative, is: ‘Why are you running into a burning building? This category is not good.’ Or there’s the other buyer, who says, ‘Where have you been? We need this kind of innovation. We need this fresh life.’”
In April, the company is launching a line of organic gummy candies in birthday cake and grapefruit melon varieties, as well as a party mix that includes birthday cake, front porch lemonade and rainbow ice flavors. This fall, the brand plans to introduce sour caramel apple gummies.
“Long term, the hope was, can this be a specialty candy brand?” Mr. Merrick said. “We don’t know if it will be, but being a small company, we can take some of those chances. We felt like gummies made the most sense for a couple of reasons. We felt like our flavors would work well there. We’re known for our fun flavors, and we felt like in the gummy category today, in some ways like the gum category, there’s an opportunity for innovation. A lot of times people buy a bag of gummies and they love gummies, but it’s like, ‘I like the red one’ or ‘I like the white one.’ They can’t put their finger on what the flavor is…
“The other reason is the reality of the fact that we’re constantly trying to be a challenger brand, and there are still many retailers and buyers that are so used to only buying from the big guys that it’s hard to break that mindset of taking in an outside brand like ours. Having the gummies as another product category helps us. Maybe they won’t buy gum from us, but they’re intrigued by the gummies. So a lot of it is strategic for that nature of just diversification and trying to work in places that would be good for our customers.”
The gummies, which are 91% organic, may also expand Project 7’s presence in the natural channel. Additionally, the company plans to introduce naturally sweetened gum later this year or early next year, Mr. Merrick said.
“The first gum that (we made) was a natural gum, and it was terrible,” he said. “I couldn’t get any retailer to buy it. That was our original product, and that’s what we want to do, but the technology hadn’t been there to make something really work and give people that experience they’re used to having in a sugar-free gum. We’re in the lab always, and we’ve got some cool stuff we’re working on right now for our first natural gums, and we feel pretty good about it… The long term goal is to continue to improve our current suite of products.”
All purchases of Project 7 products benefit the company’s non-profit partners to help plant trees, provide emergency relief for the homeless in natural disasters, provide meals in U.S. communities and clean drinking water for those in need, deliver life-saving malaria treatments, and support education in developing nations and anti-bullying programs. These seven causes address issues Mr. Merrick and his wife are passionate about solving, he said.
“The brand used to look completely different, more altruistic,” he said. “The labels said, ‘Feed the hungry,’ ‘House the homeless,’ ‘Feed the sick’… Consumers just saw it as a generic product with a cause wrapped around it. And that was the hard lesson I had to learn... That was the fault in our business model in the early years. And that’s when we had to pivot and make it about the product. You’ve got to be known for your product first. We’re still going to give, but people have to buy it because they see it as best in class.
“So I tell so many social entrepreneurs: ‘First, make it about the product. Don’t make it a pity purchase. Don’t make that a crutch. Make it first and foremost about that. That will work, and you can give out of that.’ It will only go so far if it’s only about the cause.”
Asked whether he still wants his company to become Newman’s Own 2.0, Mr. Merrick said, “No. I’m going to let Paul just let that one be. He can carry that torch, and they do that very well.“If we can just be a little gum company or maybe ultimately a fun specialty candy brand and we’re able to run a good business and give people a good product and have some neat social impact along the way, that would be wonderful.”