In a vacant lot opposite the convention center in Austin sits a blue shipping container with a long line of people snaking away from it. Most in this line will end up waiting two hours. This being SXSW, you might assume there was a celebrity meeting at the end of the line, or an exclusive party. Instead, this group is waiting for a cookie. Not just any cookie, but a customizable 3-D printed Oreo that is created in front of their eyes.
This experiment, and it’s most definitely an experiment, was called the Trending/Vending Machine. Staged by Mondelēz, the parent company of Oreo, built by Maya Design, and created in partnership with Twitter, the high concept here is that people could create their own cookie combination based on what was currently trending on Twitter. When visitors stepped up to the translucent touch screen, trending topics such as #hoverboard or #chanceofrain appeared—nodding to an Internet hoax of the moment, and the incredibly rainy weekend in Austin, respectively. Each trend related to a particular flavor combination, and participants were allowed to choose a cookie and a pattern. In all, there were 10,000 possible combinations.
The activation was born of two very real forces within Mondelēz, says Bonin Bough, the company’s vice president of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelēz International. The first was that people really love Oreos. "We realized how much our customers love the various flavors so we wanted to provide something that allows people to customize their cookie," says Bough, noting that if 2013’s Daily Twist campaign allowed people to see culture through the eyes of Oreo, the Trending/Vending machine allows people to "taste culture" through the eyes of Oreo. Hence the hashtag #EatTheTweet.
While that’s catchy and clever and all—and the actual vending machine was pretty impressive, what with its two machines inside the shipping crate whizzing and whirring around, dispensing colorful, flavored crème from 12 medical-grade, compression-powered tubes—the second motivator for this grand-scale exhibit of instant snacking gratification is more telling about Mondelēz’s approach to innovation.
"I personally am very much about looking at those things that are going to provide real potential step-change and transformation," say Bough. "I don’t believe in coming to SXSW and doing stunts because that’d be a waste. You have a unique opportunity to see how far you can move technology and get real feedback from people who actually think about this stuff every day in the real world." In this case, the step-change technology is 3-D printing. "This is technology that will transform our business."
The Trending/Vending machine is not 3-D printing in the sense that many of us have come to understand—a layer-by-layer creation of an object out of a polymer substance. When it comes to food, the notion of 3-D printing is more of a squirt technology. So in a sense, the promise of a 3-D printed cookie falls a bit short. Standing in front of the machine, it looked more like a singular, customizable production line. But this in itself offers interesting opportunities for a company like Mondelēz.
"What we’re looking at here is how do we begin to deliver new engagement experiences around our products for our consumers and customizing it in real time," says Bough. "Imagine the longer game where these sit on corners around the world, and the level of engagement and personalization and experience that has around a brand and a product. We think that’s what part of the future looks like: customizable experiences for consumers. I think that we are far off from real scale plays right now. But I do think that in limited situations, you can create really engaging, enriching consumer experiences."
It also poses great potential for distribution—the possibility of locally based, on-demand cookie machines is disruptive for a brand like Oreo. But in reality, that future is still relatively out of reach. "It’s far off still. These are really, really early days," says Bough. "If you think of 3-D Labs, which just bought Sugar Labs (the leading food-based 3-D printing company), it is just three years old. At least the other 3-D printing companies are six to seven years old and they’ve been doing so much more."
Rather than waiting for food printing to meet critical mass, Bough reveals another innovation in the works for Oreo. Pulling back a black curtain hanging from a tent situated next to the Trending/Vending machine, Bough showcases a vending machine that connects a user’s phone to the machine using WeChat, the Chinese answer to WhatsApp. With over 600 million users (this, before even really breaking into mainstream USA) WeChat’s power lies in that it ties in chatting and other social functions with micro-purchasing.
The machine, which is still a prototype, is built with a dynamic screen similar to the Trending/Vending machine. When you approach it, you’re prompted to scan a QR code (being from China, the QR code makes complete sense). You then login using WeChat and from that point on your phone controls the machine’s screen. You then select a product, pay through WeChat—thankfully eliminating the need to scramble for loose change for your sugar fix—and voila, the opaque video screen becomes transparent to revel the insides.
Bough says this partnership with WeChat is an answer to the question of how to create a vending experience based on mobile payments. "Wanted to show the power of WeChat and the potential of micro-payments," he says. It’s also another example of the culture within Mondelēz.
"We are a very innovation led organization. When we announced MDLZ as a new organization, one of the big messages from our CEO was that we want to be the world’s biggest startup. And I think that’s a mindset that changes a company," Bough says, noting that the company builds a startup ethos into its corporate structure through it’s Mobile Futures program, which is an internal accelerator with a view to launching products and capturing VC funding. And in Argentina, the company has an innovation incubator called the Fly Garage.
"We also do a lot of startup experimentation. We always want to understand what the potential impact of a lot of these technologies can be on our business. So test-and-learn is huge. It’s actually about learn-and-lead. Once you see something that’s conceptually looking good, how do you lean in on that really hard and bring that to life at scale so that it has a chance to impact the business?"
Back to the throng of people waiting for a printed Oreo—some of whom let out a chorus of "Oh, nooooo" when their custom cookie was marred by technical malfunction—the question lingers over what the immediate outcome of something like the Trending/Vending machine might be.
"We’re still in the process of trying to understand what the final outcome is," says Bough. "This will move around and we’ll learn more, we’ll gather more experiences, more of our execs will see it and their brains will process what the potential of this could be. We don’t know. It could be a new model that sits in store; it could be alongside one of our partners. We don’t know where it’s going to go. The important thing is to put the experiment out, test it in the wild, but also with other thinkers that could help us explore and bring it back into the organization."