The Mars Ice Cream – Quality Trumps Price and Remembering Dan Jacoby

It is late 1987. The Packaging Buying Department at Mars Confectionery is looking forward to a fairly regular treat. A research manager, who seems younger than his (mid-thirties) age, with wild black scientist-type hair, glasses worn low on his nose, a slightly manic grin and infallible good humour, is on his way up from the laboratory to get my team to try the latest sample of the new product he is designing.

It is an ice-cream bar. But not just any old ice-cream bar – a Mars ice-cream bar. Now frankly, we think this chap, although he is clearly very bright, and all the girls think he is lovely (in a sort of geek-chic way, although none of my twenty-something-year-old assistant buyers would have recognised the term in those days), is slightly crazy. He has clearly been given an impossible task. The Mars family are so super-sensitive about anything with their name on, the chances of them approving an ice-cream seems pretty low. But we always - well, usually - enjoy tasting his latest samples.

At that time, individual portioned ice-creams come in two varieties. Forgetting “lollies”, the dominant products are the Cornetto, and the choc-ice. Actually, that is pretty much it in terms of customer choice. The Cornetto is a huge market leader, and very distinctive, whilst choc ices are cheap and fairly nasty, with “chocolate-flavoured coating” and “non-dairy ice cream” that contains no ingredient with even a passing relationship to a cow.

Our research guy has been tasked with creating a quality product that looks, tastes and feels like a Mars Bar – only colder. And every few weeks, he appears in the packaging buying department with samples to get our opinion. But real chocolate, necessary for quality reasons, doesn’t stick to ice-cream very well. Getting a caramel that tastes like Mars Bar caramel and is neither rock-solid nor totally fluid proves tricky. But nothing seems to discourage him – he smiles, whatever feedback we give him, his natural bounce and enthusiasm unquenchable.

One day he appears with a very good-looking product, certainly with the right appearance and  dimensions. We taste it. Gosh, it’s good! It’s REALLY good! It is, in fact, THE Mars Bar Ice-Cream – that is undeniably what it is, with superb flavour and quality.

“How much will it retail for”, I ask?

“50p”, says our scientist hero, Dan Jacoby.

“50p?? No-one will pay that”, I exclaim. “You can buy a perfectly good choc-ice for 20p!”

“Yes”, argues Dan, “but this is quality, real chocolate, dairy ice-cream, the lot. People will pay for that”.

“No chance!”

And of course, Dr Dan Jacoby was right and my marketing judgement was yet again proved wrong. By 1989, the Mars Ice Cream was THE top selling product in the UK ice-cream market, one of the most successful new products in the FMCG sector for many years.

And our hero, with his doctorate in Applied Physics, huge enthusiasm and great creativity, was vindicated. Many years later, just two years ago, he did some consulting work for the firm for which I’m a non-executive director, and gave us an extraordinarily thorough and impressive piece of work for a ridiculously small fee – just because it interested him, I suspect.

I could draw a few procurement- thoughts together at this point – how quality beats price on most occasions, the importance of procurement contributing to new product development without looking to simply cut costs, and the beauty that can result when persistence, intellect and creativity come together.

But the real reason for writing this, in the week of the Mars alumni dinner, is to express our sincere condolences to the friends and family of Dan Jacoby, who last month died (far too young) after a fairly lengthy illness. As well as his great and valued work for Mars and then independent projects, he was a governor at Desborough College in Maidenhead, where his energy, intellect and practical talents were clearly much appreciated. He was a lovely man, super-smart and therefore challenging at times, but always thoughtful, funny, kind and imaginative. He will be remembered with great fondness by many, many people.

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Voices (6)

  1. Lindsay Ward:

    I have no idea why I thought of Dan today, but I did. Then I realized how disgracefully slow I have been to say something, so let’s make up for that. Not only was Dan a great if controversial scientist (Dan, Dan the Rework Man, sang 4-line) but he was my business partner for a few, glorious, years. Dan was also given the job of marketing some of the products he designed, and I had to love him twice: firstly as the Co-manufacturing Buyer for Mars, and then The Sales Operations Manager – how the heck are we going to distribute and merchandise this stuff? Well we did, and we did it so well that I ended up in court vs Unilever. I spent countless hours with Dan, driving to (for example) Plymouth, meeting in my home, I couldn’t get rid of him. Dan had more ideas in one hour than I have ever had in a year; I think we made a great team, I am almost the opposite. He was always pushing, but in a very gentle way. He could briefly drive you nuts but you knew that he was reaching for the good stars and I NEVER had a bad word with him … I just wished I could be more like him. Dan was – is – a very significant part of my life. He’s not gone because his memories linger on. With my deepest respect and affection, I look forward to seeing you again my friend and colleague.

  2. Tony Buckley:

    I’m not sure why but I just thought about my friend from university days, Dan Jacoby, and wondered what had happened to him. I found this and was so terribly sad to hear that he is no longer with us. We lost touch after graduating but I have nothing but fond memories of him from our time together in Brighton. His wild hair, crazy enthusiasm and cheerfulness are an uplifting memory. I remember driving around London with him in his father’s bakery van when he suddenly did a U-turn across 6 lanes of traffic; his story about turning up at a black tie dinner dressed as a clown thinking it was fancy dress – and sticking with it all evening; and the way he would suddenly hurtle around the dance floor when the DJ played “Jig-a-jig” by East of Eden. It looks like he continued to be a force of nature in later life. My condolences Lin.

  3. Rachel McComb:

    A wonderful piece to read as we approach the anniversary of his death. He was a very special man, incredibly proud of his work and he would never believe that he is thought of so fondly. He is deeply missed.
    Dan’s daughter

  4. Linda Jacoby:

    I’ve only just seen this and can’t tell you how much it means to me. He was all of those things – and more! He loved his family and worked very hard for us. We have wonderful memories.

  5. Clay Bailey:

    I always saw Dan as an untamed force of nature. He could never sit still for long, and was a wellspring of ideas. So sorry to hear that he’s passed away, as it was always fun working with him, both on Mars Ice Cream and Mars Milk back in the day. What a shame he’s gone, and I’d echo the good things said about him by Peter and Garry. It saddens me to hear of his loss.

  6. Garry Mansell:

    I was working in the same lab with Dan at Mars at the same time as your story (as you know) and everything you said about Dan is so true. I was working on R&D staff development at the same time as Dan was making regular excursions North to create his latest samples. I once heard somebody say of him..”If you cut his head off ideas would still come flying out…..and unlike most people, most of them would be pretty good”.

    Dan had the capability to inspire and to challenge, always with the same good humour and he was the best user of the word “Why?” I ever met.

    The World is a lesser place without him.

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