On Goose Island, an industrial district in downtown Chicago, clipboard-carrying chemists are filling vials, testing formulas, and calibrating state-of-the-art spectrometers in the laboratories of an ultramodern research facility. Near a soaring window overlooking the Chicago River and the city's skyline, a woman in a crisp white lab coat pours mud-colored sludge into an industrial mixing machine. Then, as the device kneads the substance into a gooey mass, she empties a precisely measured beaker of amber liquid over the roiling concoction. In an instant, an aroma of spearmint fills the room. Close your eyes and take a deep breath, and you might for a moment believe that the sterile, colorless laboratory is now, as if by magic, an old-time confectioner's shop.
The lab has all the trappings of a cutting-edge research facility, but the edge these technicians are cutting might surprise you: They are creating the chewing gum of tomorrow. Innovation in electronics, autos, medicine, sure. But gum? "Companies that innovate in industries where the benefit of innovation is often overlooked tend to reap disproportionately large rewards," says James P. Andrew, head of the Boston Consulting Group's global innovation practice.
Wrigley fully embraced innovation in 2001, when the success of its first modern gum, Orbit, proved that the future of the business was in the "functional" qualities of sugar-free gum as a breath freshener, low-calorie snack substitute, and so forth. Around the same time, Wrigley hired Surinder Kumar (a veteran R&D guru from Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pepsi, and the former Warner-Lambert) to fill the new post of chief innovation officer.
Kumar championed the glittering GIC as a church where the company can worship its newfound faith in innovation. The facility centers around a lush, Zen-like atrium that serves as a popular meeting place. It also includes a consumer-testing center, with mock grocery-store candy racks, banks of interactive computers, and observation rooms with two-way mirrors.
The development of 5 came out of a management edict to make a splash among image-conscious teenagers and young adults (the most reliable gum consumers). The company sent 10 top scientists, engineers, and marketers to hang out with young people and figure out why they chew what they do. After tagging along on camping trips and club outings, they discovered that kids "don't just want a functional gum that freshens breath," says VP and global chief marketing officer Martin Schlatter. They also see a gum brand as an expression of who they are.
The team refined these insights by bringing teens and young adults into the GIC. "What we're performing are psych tests," says sensory and consumer science director Michele Carrabotta. "How do young people chew gum? What emotions are evoked?" Early on, developers considered incorporating sound into 5's packaging but were shot down by their young subjects. "They told us, in effect, 'Don't play in categories you don't know,'" she says. "'We have iPods for that.'"
The R&D team also went to the gum lab to mine technological advances in flavor intensity—known in the industry as the "initial hit"—and flavor longevity. What's more, developers had the luxury of being able to run prototypes through an on-site pilot plant to make sure they were scalable to mass production. "Innovation isn't just about creativity in coming up with new ideas," Kumar says. "There's also the process of discovering how to make the products consistent day in and day out."
Finally, drawing on the success of Orbit, which included a new envelope-style package, engineers came up with a carton for 5 that slightly resembles a hip cigarette box: The top flips open to expose 15 sticks of gum in neat rows. The dark, sleek pack of gum, in short, masquerades as an accessory, aimed at demonstrating that the carrier chews gum that's as stylish as she is. "When [consumers] take out their iPod," Schlatter says, "we want them to feel like they can put their pack of 5 on the table next to it." Ultimately, the most important innovation brewing at the GIC might be the notion that Wrigley can produce a chewing gum whose appeal lies in its styling as much as in its chewing pleasure.
Orbit is the number-one gum in America, with sales of more than $200 million a year. In time, the company hopes, 5 will grow into a powerhouse too. Says Schlatter: "The challenge is developing a brand that has"—ahem—"sticking power."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.