Easter is right around the corner, and baskets will be filled with those timeless marshmallow chicks known as Peeps. The company behind them ironically is called Just Born (named for founder Sam Born).
What you probably didn't know is that Just Born has always been a manufacturing pioneer, cutting production time down back in 1954 from 27 hours to six minutes by automating its operations. Automation lowers production costs and leads to product consistency and quality. It can even create new jobs, contrary to the "robots are coming" fear-mongering you may have heard lately.
Matt Pye, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Just Born, shared with me the history of Peeps. Many of the brand's innovations and lessons learned can be the key to product and company longevity. I've broken them down into five principles, which can apply to different types of businesses -- beyond fluffy edible baby animals.
Marshmallow treats need special handling, and human error can lead to inconsistencies in quality. So now robots pack cases on pallets, and pick up Peeps Bunnies and place them in trays. Just Born recently partnered with JLS to utilize product grippers from Soft Robotics on a packaging system instead of vacuum suction. In addition to speeding up production and lowering costs, these "soft robots" have enabled Just Born to develop new products such as Peeps Delights (which are chicks dipped in or filled with chocolate).
2. Fan-inspired marketing
Peeps have become a social media sensation. With close to 40 million Instagram followers and thousands of inspirational ideas on Pinterest, the company encourages Peeps fans to build their own creations, which have included a six-foot sculpture. Looking to your fans to promote and build on your brand is essential is today's digital and crowdsourced world.
3. Creative seasonal and product line extensions
If you have a successful product, don't mess with the recipe but build on it. With marshmallow at its core, the company has introduced seasonal (Halloween, Valentine's Day, and Christmas) products, as well as partnerships with Oreos on Peeps cookies and Penguin Random House on a line of books. There's a Peeps-themed alternative to Elf on a Shelf called Peep on a Perch.
4. Willingness to experiment and to act quickly when something doesn't work
Every long-tenured business will admit to making a bad call or two. Because the brand evokes nostalgia, in 2015 Just Born re-released its white chicks, which were first sold in 1954. The company learned that new consumers preferred bright colors, so it stopped production on the "retro chicks" in 2017.
5. Continuity and respect for experience
As you introduce the new, you don't have to give up on history. Still a privately held company, Just Born is a family-owned business, and its leaders have celebrated anniversaries with the company as long as 40 years.
Peeps remains the No. 1 non-chocolate candy brand at Easter (a title it has held for more than 20 years), and it is now planning to leverage the second-biggest holiday for the brand, which is Christmas.
Turning a seasonal treat into a cult classic that has survived six decades took a unique combination of human creativity and commitment and robotic mastery.