During the Spanish Civil War, Forrest Mars, Sr. saw some soldiers eating little chocolate pellets surrounded by a sugar shell, preventing the little pieces of chocolate from melting. He perfected the process, patented it and, along with Bruce Murrie, began production in 1941 exclusively for the military. The candy hooked thousands of GIs and the company began selling to the general public after the World War II ended, establishing M&M’s (Mars & Murrie) as one of the best-selling chocolates in history.
In nearly 70 years, the product has grown from a treat for soldiers to one of the most extended products in the world, with multiple fillings, flavors, customization options, colors and sizes that are sold in stores ranging from gas station stop-and-gos to the massive M&M’s Store on the Las Vegas strip.
What can entrepreneurs learn from Mars and Murrie? The customer’s vision (and money) drives product direction, not the entrepreneur. If Mars had stuck with his original product vision, the product would be relegated the memories of those who fought in World War II. There never would have been the addition of peanuts in 1954, peanut butter in 1990, the blue M&M in 1994 or a wall of “My Color” M&M’s anywhere. Certainly, there never would have been a customer-driven rumor that green M&M’s are an aphrodisiac, which has led to product extensions itself (bags of green M&M’s sold on Valentine’s Day, the sultry female M&M character featured in much of the company’s advertising). While there’s market research behind the moves that M&M’s makes, customer demand drives the vision of what the next M&M innovation will be.
One of the greatest challenges that inventors face is internal. Many inventors, who have invested countless hours and dollars perfecting their product, become so closely aligned to their own innovation vision that they lose sight of the customer. They restrict the vision of the market that they’re creating, which turns off potential customers, investors, champions and referrals. This eventually leads to game-changing technologies dying on the vine because the inventor thinks they’re smarter than the market.
Inventors and entrepreneurs must realize that they lose control of their product the minute they develop it. As soon it goes from concept to execution, the customer dictates whether or not the product is viable and what improvements should be made. Customers are smart. Follow their lead. And always remember that it was the customer, not the inventor, that created the green M&M.