Eighteen months ago, Mondelez International, home to Cadbury chocolate, Oreo biscuits and Tuc crackers, launched SnackFutures, an “independent innovation and venture hub” the US giant believed would help it “lead the future of snacking”.

SnackFutures was to focus on three areas: one, “reinventing” some of Mondelez’s smaller brands that had “large-scale potential”; two, what the company called “venturing” with start-ups; and, three, the “invention of new brands and businesses in key strategic areas”.

During that first year-and-a-half in operation, Mondelez has, through SnackFutures, invested in US prebiotic functional foods business Uplift Food and in another US firm, the free-from snacks maker Hu Master Holdings.

The hub has also developed four new brands, including CaPao – snacks that contain an ingredient that supplier Barry Callebaut says uses more of the cacao fruit – and Ruckus & Co., a line of lunchbox smoothies for kids.

Central to SnackFutures’ NPD process has been what executives call “transactional learning”, which involves eschewing the traditional, slower, stage-gate approach to innovation and instead sees developers getting prototypes into consumers’ hands faster and making changes to products more quickly, based on feedback.

Brigette Wolf, the head of innovation at SnackFutures, says the hub has sought to be “very focused on the consumer, probably more so than ever, building true empathy [and] getting out there, what I call ‘in the wild’ with consumers”.

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By GlobalData

“We had developed all of these almost in under a year, so really fast I would say, from blank sheets of paper, to where we’ve iterated and co-created with consumers to actually get them out in-market,” she explains.

Wolf, who has spent more than a decade working at Mondelez and at the former Kraft Foods business that acquired UK confectioner Cadbury in 2010, is talking to just-food from Illinois, where, like many in the industry, she is working from home after local stay-at-home measures were introduced to try to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.

With lockdown measures in place the world over as the planet battles the pandemic, it must be harder to interact with consumers the way SnackFutures has sought to, so far. “There’s a lot of digital tools but even then I really always try to enforce the human side of things,” Wolf says. “Just because you can talk to them, are there heads in the space to be talked to?”

Covid-19 has led the SnackFutures team to work on building the e-commerce presence of its four new brands, which also include another brand on sale in the US, Dirt Kitchen fruit-and-veg snacks, and NoCOé, a range of crackers marketed in France, underlining Mondelez’s international ambitions for the hub.

“Really there is a lot that is still in motion. We’re working with customers on setting up more transactional learning and building our social media presence with the brands,” Wolf says. “The main pivot is prioritising e-commerce rather than retail sales or in-person sampling. We had focused some efforts there already but now it has become a priority. We also delayed some production in order to be mindful of inventory and we are pausing some research on new projects given consumer mindsets at the moment.”

The SnackFutures hub is also looking to support the two fledgling businesses in which it has invested, Uplift and Hu, as they try to adapt to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. “Uplift just launched their Gut Happy Cookies last week, which are now available on upliftfood.com and will be available on Amazon in a few weeks,” Wolf notes. “Overall, Covid-19 is reinforcing the need for wellbeing snacks and self-care so we want to be able to help consumers with providing snacks that meet those needs.”

Healthier snacks aimed at consumers’ “wellbeing” was one of the main focus areas of SnackFutures upon its launch and it remains so. “Coming out of this, I think wellbeing snacks are going to be requested as people look for that portability, so hopefully we’ll be well positioned with the brands that we started,” Wolf says.

The investments in Uplift and Hu have also been made through that strategic lens of “wellbeing”. Would it be fair to say Covid-19 could see Mondelez become more cautious about making more investments, at least in the near term?

“We had companies that we were evaluating pre-Covid. Those conversations will continue,” Wolf insists. “We’re going to keep a radar out for emerging brands. This is a way also where you start seeing who’s a little bit more stable, or who has really distinct solutions that consumers are gravitating to in this time. Nothing’s coming out tomorrow but, at the same time, I’m hoping that it will be a stronger opportunity for us to see, whether it’s an M&A or venture or just partnerships, of working with the start-ups.”

just-food speaks to Wolf days after the latest announcement from SnackFutures, with the hub unveiling the launch of an office in Germany, its third formal location after the US and Australia.

Germany, particularly around the capital Berlin, is seen in Europe as one of the more fertile locations for food and food-tech start-ups. Wolf says SnackFutures’ German location will have a “cross-European” remit, working with staff already in place in Zurich – where Mondelez has its European headquarters – in France and in the UK, home, of course, to Cadbury, as well as being an important R&D hub for the snacks maker.

“I have team members in the UK, we have team members in Zurich, in France where we’ve launched NoCOé. It’s definitely a cross European piece versus being at micro focus of just Germany,” she says.

Wolf does reveal how SnackFutures’ remit has, in one way, become more focused. At launch, the platform had three pillars – invent, reinvent and venture – but one of those is set to become less of an area of attention for the hub.

“SnackFutures was built with the intent of have it be nimble enough so that we can continue to shape it and see what things are working or not,” she explains. “The ‘invent’ side and the ‘venture’ side is 100% there. We did some projects last year with the business unit on ‘reinvent’ and what we’re actually doing is likely giving that back to them because it’s still their business, their lines.

“Where we’ve seen some gifts is helping them get coached how to think differently about their brand but, what we found was, once we start tinkering with their [brands], we start touching a lot more internally. It was, like, ‘We’ll let them own that and we can go to the truly outside spaces and outside the category.’ Where we’ll probably be amplifying and dialling up more is in different ways of how we grow more with SnackFutures on ‘invent’ and on start-ups.”

And SnackFutures, Wolf seeks to underline, is keen to offer more than simply investment to the start-ups it backs. “I spoke with Kara [Landau, Uplift founder] the other day, she’s just coming off her production of her cookies. When we invested in her, we knew where her vision was going into biscuits. Our R&D team has been extremely involved in helping her develop and commercialise those,” Wolf says. “So how we can kind of not only give cash infusions, but really give capability and help to the businesses. That has been instrumental in our venture investment.”

The Uplift Gut Happy Cookies, with what the firm calls their “scientifically-supported, gut-healthy” recipe, are being launched at a time when consumers under lockdown are looking for snacks – but not always for reasons of health, as Wolf acknowledges. However, she believes there will be a renewed interest in healthier products when the planet emerges from Covid-19.

“In this environment that we have now, there is a need on one side to have your comfort and your indulgent snacks, which are really important to manage. I’ve been eating my chocolates and that’s not going away,” Wolf says. “But there’s also this need of self-care.”

She outlines the particular segments of snacking that could see increased interest. “I think, within wellbeing, you’re going to see a lot more stress management, whether you see that through the gut health or just in general. We have always seen functional foods come up [and] I think you’re going to see a rise in that more than before through immunity, stress and sleep that people are trying to manage.”

And, in a nod to SnackFutures’ interest in more environmentally-sustainable snacks, through, for example, the launch of CaPao, Wolf also hopes there will be greater interest in what she calls “planetary” snacks.

“I’m very hopeful – and this is my wish – that planetary snacks will emerge. There was a lovely article today that in India for the first time they can see the Himalayas. So maybe this [Covid-19] will give people a pause to have more sustainable snacking and more mindful snacking.”