Sour Skittles inventor shares 3 sweet tips to boost creativity

(Photo credit: Kristen Billerbeck)

(Photo credit: Kristen Billerbeck)

There’s a new candy flying off shelves this Halloween from one of America’s favorite chewy candy brands. Skittles just revealed its 2015 “Darkside” candy line. With more than 160 flavors from “Smoothie Mix Skittles” to “Sour Skittles” — how are these creative ideas generated?

Marketing wiz Allen Burch, the creative mind behind Sour Skittles and Hungry Jack syrup, is just the person to ask. He has top-notch marketing experience with Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, Bayer AG and M&M/Mars. Burch recommends three easy techniques to boost creativity.

skilttles 1“Derivative Creativity” functions by taking something that already works then making incremental improvements. For example, peanut butter is great. Add chunky pieces. Add chocolate. Make an existing idea better.

When Burch marketed Hungry Jack’s pancake syrup, he noticed it was sold in tall bottles. While most people would prefer hot syrup on their pancakes, the tall bottle wouldn’t fit in their microwaves.

“This is called the ‘unmet demand’ approach to creativity,” Burch said. “It could be that consumers don’t know they want something until exposed to the idea.”

Burch saw this unmet need and applied derivative creativity to design a shorter bottle to fit into the microwave. Sales increased by $25 million.

skittles 2“Original Creativity,” as the name suggests, is creating something the world has never conceived. This is harder but possible.

The Internet is an example of original creativity. The originality of the communication tool caused it to catch on rapidly.

Facebook also used original creativity. It was something nobody had heard of before, yet people were interested in. It brought something entirely new to the table.

“Cross-functional Creativity” brings ideas from different fields or ways of thinking and smashes them together.

Uber uses cross-functional creativity. Through proximity software, GPS location and electronic payment, Uber created a new business model that eliminated the traditional taxi model.

Burch researched many similar products marketing Skittles for M&M/Mars Inc. He found popular extreme flavors and candy like the “Atomic Fireball” and “Sour Patch Kids.”

“My thinking was I could take Skittles and create a line extension (derivative creativity). I tried adding more acid to the regular product. This worked but was more expensive and we had texture stability problems,” Burch said.

After working with the research and development department, he decided to add the sour on the outside of the Skittle to lower costs.

“It worked but it covered up the white “S” on every Skittle. We lost branding that way which is bad,” he said. “I asked if we could make the “S” black and everyone hated the idea but we found a soy based black ink that worked and when dusted with acid was still visible.”

Being savvy with costs, Burch reduced the package weight to make up for the higher cost. Then he took cues from packaging designers from other sour products to make the packaging green.

Using cross-functional creativity, he found the right balance for “Sour Skittles.”

It was a hit. First year sales were more than $30 million.


Creativity is the sweet sugar in PR/Marketing. Too often creativity is thought as a “gift” or “supernatural power” that is beyond ourselves, according to Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas. Markman suggests that creativity is a skill or talent that can be become stronger the more it’s used.

This Halloween, be more creative. Don’t get discouraged from bumps in the road. Start developing your creativity and stand out in your industry. What will be your $30 million idea?

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