J-e-l-l-o. Did you hear the jingle? Did you know it was a poet, not a marketing guru or stiff-suited executive who turned Jell-O around with the “Jiggler” for General Foods back in the late 1970s? Arts-oriented business people, meet your folk hero: Dana Gioia.
Gioia described himself to Tyler Cowen as “a poet who needed a job so he got his MBA.” He’s a believer in the power math and magic combined. And, it should come as no surprise, he figured out how to combine the two to do some pretty remarkable work over his career.
When General Foods’ appointed Gioia to lead the Jell-O product, he was privately advised that his real job was to wind it down gently. Sales had been in decline for 20 years and he was going to be the one to put the hospital staple on hospice.*
Not so fast. There was a creative on the case. Gioia got to thinking. Jell-O was actually a high-margin product.** If they could just move some more of those little cardboard boxes, this could be a huge opportunity for him and the company. All he had to do was figure out what was causing this steady sales slump?
Gioia and his team started by making all the recipes. Well, trying to make them. Turns out, they were overly complicated and time-consuming.
This was ridiculous to them. No wonder nobody was buying this anymore. Why not make it something so easy that a group of corporate VP’s could whip them up in minutes and eat with their fingers? Well, why not?
They went on to invent the idea of the Jell-O Jiggler, brought a household name in to market it to busy parents as an easy snack, and it quickly became one of General Foods’ best selling (and most profitable) products.
Look back to where and how Gioia’s creativity came into play. He found a high-margin product with redeemable merits. He broke from the old mindset about what it was used for and figured out a way to make it useful. He came up with a plan, scaled it up, and it ended up taking his career in a whole new direction.
Because of his business success, it also paved the way for Gioia to be extra involved in his passions on his own terms. He continues to work today as a poet, a literary critic, a translator, an essayist, and an all-round business rockstar.
Do check out his Conversations with Tyler interview and get inspired to keep your creativity front and center in your work, no matter how corporate it is.
*actually, he’s probably the reason this is a hospital staple, but the sentence was too amusing to me to edit.
**ahem, for the non-business people getting their chops up, here’s an example: high margin = getting paid a dollar when something only costs a penny to make. Low margin = getting paid a dollar when something costs 99 cents to make. Because Jell-O is so cheap to make, anything that boosted sales would be a huge win for the company. He saw this opportunity and capitalized on it.