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The Changing World of Product Development 

Chris Rowe is the newest member of the MPD2 Industry Advisory Board. He shares his insights on how creating new offerings is changing and how the MPD2 program is successful at producing graduates who make a difference.

Chris Rowe is the global vice president of R&D at Mars Wrigley. The world of product design and development he is responsible for looks very different from when he started at the company in 2003.  

 Cell phones were not as present as they are today and hadn't yet spawned new shopping habits. Social media was just starting to leak off-campus into the business world. The need for sustainability still was a hotly debated “if,” not a necessity.  

Chris RoweThat was the culture surrounding Rowe when he started at what today is the world’s leading manufacturer of chocolate, chewing gum, and fruity confectioneries that features some of the industry's most recognized brands, like M&M’s, Snickers, Extra, Orbit, and Skittles, to name a few.  

Rowe is responsible for the research and development of the entire line of Mars Wrigley products, including a team of 1,500 R&D associates at more than 50 sites around the world. He is also a new member of the Industry Advisory Board (IAB) for Northwestern Engineering's Master of Product Design and Development Management (MPD2) program, where he is looking forward to sharing his perspectives on the evolving field.  

To say Rowe has seen tremendous change is a vast understatement. Chief among those changes are the way people shop, the role of sustainability in product creation, and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the development process.  

“At its most fundamental level, a winning product has to solve a real and meaningful consumer pain point,” he said. “But that’s often not enough. Many products do this and never succeed. A key element, in my view, is the inclusion of features that delight consumers in ways they didn’t expect.”  

Providing that delight, however, is a major challenge for a company such as Mars Wrigley, whose products don’t often appear on shopping lists and more likely are impulse buys in the grocery store. How do you provide delight when more and more shopping isn’t even occurring in a store?  

To Rowe, it’s about creating connections.  

“It's that kind of stuff that drives engagement with the product experience,” he said. “Think about all the stuff you've had with the iPhone and everything around the features you never imagined, like Airdrop. Nobody thought of needing Airdrop, but it’s really cool and it's really useful.”  

Part of creating that connection is to develop products that ride the cultural tide, Rowe said. Sustainable sourcing and packaging wasn’t a major part of the product development process when Rowe served as director of packaging innovation at what was then the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in 2007.  

Today, sustainability is included in the first steps of ideation.  

Then, there is the growth of artificial intelligence. In the past, creating a new version of a product would involve the mixing of its physical ingredients and small-scale production in mini-plants – an expensive and time-consuming process.  

But today, variables in ingredient mixtures can be fed virtually into AI and mixed with known consumer sentiment data to predict the delight the new product would likely see in the marketplace.  

“We don't necessarily always have to go out and do that next physical experiment, which saves a lot of time and saves a lot of money,” he said. “It's going to get to a point where it's a combination of human and machine working together in terms of how you make that process go faster.”  

This intersection of technology with a changing marketplace makes today an incredibly interesting time to be in product development, Rowe said. That’s why he is so excited to be a part of the MPD2’s Industry Advisory Board, which is tasked with ensuring the program’s instruction remains aligned with actual business needs.  

“MPD2 is shaping the next generation of innovation leaders,” he said. “Through my role on the board, I’m hoping to ensure the program stays on top of its game to provide our students with an experience that enables them to have a big impact on the world through innovation.” 

Rowe said he has seen first-hand the difference an MPD2 education makes on professionals seeking to have that big impact. 

“MPD2 is a truly unique program that effectively balances the creative, technical, and business elements of innovation,” he said. “Mars Wrigley has sent many people through the program, and I see a marked difference in the capability of people graduating from the program to deliver impact in the business.” 

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