When Factories join the social network

South by Southwest is famously where digital culture breaks. It is often a good place to find ripples on the surface that will soon become waves in the business world. In the lead up to the festival, Nest, a cute little product company that was showcased last year at SXSW, was purchased by Google for $3 billion dollars. Just a reminder—that wasn’t some social matchmaking app like Tinder—it was a thermostat, with core technology that had been around for a century or more. The secret? It was connected and became a part of your social network. While we don’t know how that particular story will end, it almost certainly heralds a tsunami of change as physical products officially join the social graph.

This year the signal that was hidden in the noise hints at the next chapter of the story.

While it may sound strange, not only products, but also factories are joining the social network. I predict that this trend will upend the entire idea of product design and development.

Change is coming, and as a wise person once said. “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”

Known as the Oreo Trending Vending Lounge, Oreo and Twitter teamed up to encourage festivalgoers to “#EatTheTweet” that represented a trending topic on Twitter. They could also mash-up their own flavor and design combinations to match their mood right at that moment. Advanced algorithms turned the tweets into treats. The effort was lead by food scientists and marketing innovators at Mondelēz (the parent company of the Oreo brand) so that the cookies always remained pure to Oreo’s iconic and delicious experience.

At one point #TrendingVending was the trending topic and the vending machine made a cookie of itself. When daylight savings time began to trend a golden starburst of flavors began to appear in the menu of popular cookies. Not surprisingly #SXSW began to trend and became a cookie that started its own buzz in the twittersphere.

Half of the fun of South by Southwest is acting like you know what’s going on.

It would be easy to dismiss Trending Vending as yet another level of social media integration from a brand that has been on fire in the last year or two with “Daily Twists” and “Dunking in the Dark.” We certainly spent quite a bit of time just enjoying the wonder that was a 3-D printed Oreo and a complimentary milk bar. By the end of SXSW most attendees agreed that Oreo had done it again and taken the game to eleven. By many accounts it was one of the most popular activities at the festival this year.

But what was really going on?

There is a danger in hearing all that buzz and thinking you know what it means. “Oh they made a 3-D printer for cookies.” Finding a nice bucket to put things in feels good, but sometimes the nuance is where the real value lies.

At the start of the project we explored the idea of a Quantified Snack Markup Language (QSML) of sorts. A way to encode the things that were essential to a perfect Oreo from the way it was flavored to the shear strength and adhesion properties of a perfect “twist, lick, and dunk” experience. We looked at ways to connect Twitter analytics to flavor and color combinations. Along the way we realized future versions could not only look at global trends but let consumers connect their personal trends into the experience. Are you working out more than normal? Maybe you get an Oreo that tastes just a little sweeter. Or you’re trying to cut down but still love the taste and the Oreo is produced in a smaller more intense combination. Should the language encode something like the “Gross National Happiness Index” so if the world had bad news we could pick people up through pattern or flavor?

If the twentieth century was largely about global food companies lowering the cost to distribute calories to the world, could the twenty-first be about lowering the cost of healthy and happy calories tuned just for you? Could product experiences tie directly back to individuals and their needs and desires?

On a more playful note, if you were binge watching Game of Thrones could you print out a pack of Red Velvet Oreos to prepare for that epic wedding scene? If your kids loved the Halloween Oreos last year, could you time shift them and print them out this spring as a fun surprise. What if you could have a Trending Vending machine right in your kitchen?

While we explored the notion that for the first time in history an Oreo factory could be completely contained within a vending machine, we realized that the factory itself was now joining the social graph. It could be a massively distributed network. Rather than one big disconnected factory we could build a social network of smart micro-factories.

Creativity could be unleashed. Stories people told about themselves and the world might become a part of the next product that rolled off the line. Rather than designing the perfect Oreo and hoping the world would buy millions of them, we found ourselves designing a kind of Oreo authoring tool. We were talking about a species of products that embodied the brands ethos of being “Wonderfilled” and encouraged consumers and trendsetters to build their own individual products, just for themselves. Further, if a creative consumer invented a particularly popular combination could we reward them and someday mint new Oreo tycoons? It forced the entire team to think about the essence of “Oreoness” and the potential agility and adaptability this new approach could bring. The implications for product, story and business model were significant.

For example, just stop for a moment and think about efficiency throughout the product lifecycle. Consider all that specialized material and packaging that goes into making a snack that has to be produced thousands of miles away and then spend days in shipping or sitting on store shelves. Could we reduce that material to almost nothing? Could we just “ship” the blueprint and make the Oreo on demand? After all, snacks are impulse purchases. Why not make them fresh?

B. Bonin Bough, VP of Global Media and Consumer Engagement at Mondelēz International gave a talk during the festival about the implications of experiments like Trending Vending where food shifts fluidly between atoms and bits. “We are not that far away, ladies and gentleman, from a world that looks very much like Willy Wonka.” Later he noted, “Even an Oreo cookie can become a ‘hack.’ Even an Oreo cookie can transform what it means to connect with a product and technology and push the limits of what’s possible.”

Instead of trying to use media to get customers to like what we made, what if we could help them make what they like?

Trending Vending was a new form of media built out of the product itself. It let us make cookies together—between the brand and the consumer and the community at large—in a dynamic equilibrium between market-demand and personal invention.

Consider this question, “What does connectivity across trillions of things, people and environments really mean for the very core beliefs and practices of product development and marketing?”

Ask yourself what your organization is doing to get smart about made media. 

We thought these insights were so important that we launched an entirely new spin-out of MAYA called AoT to explore the implications to the classic agency and media world.

While AoT explores the media side of the story our core team of designers and researchers at MAYA have been exploring the other side of the equation. What do we need to do to prepare as product designers for the next machine age, where not only products but factories, join the social network?

At MAYA we’ve been thinking about that ever since we published Trillions, and we think we’re now ready to share some initial second-order effects.

If you’re ready to start thinking about your role as a product innovator or are curious where we see things going when the line between marketing and product blurs and factories join the social network, check out the white paper.

And if you think you’ve seen the end of the story of Trending Vending, think again. Our prediction is that you haven’t seen anything yet.

PS for a deeper dive into the “behind the scenes” of Trending Vending, check out this short film from SXSW.

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