Mars presents: a spooktacular digital Halloween

Under time and supply chain pressures, Mars used Acquia to create a digitize trick or treating.

Like everything else in 2020, Halloween is going to be different. No New York City Halloween Parade, fewer parties, and in a number of states around the country, trick or treating is strongly discouraged. This all presents problems for parents and would-be party-goers, but also for a giant candy manufacturer like Mars Wrigley (think Snickers, M&Ms, and many other household name brands).

Shubham Mehrish, VP Digital Demand at Mars, explained why. “It was back in April or May that we started worrying about the longevity of the pandemic. Halloween is a big event for the Mars Wrigley business.” (Mars is a global conglomerate, encompassing pet food and animal care as well as confectionery; Mars Wrigley is the U.S.-based confectionery division).

Not just another website

There was concern, not only about how Halloween would work with social distancing, but also about the possibility of COVID being shed from inaminmate objects like candy bars. “The brief we came up with didn’t come from the business, it came from our tech teams. How can we digitize Halloween? Our initial concept was very traditional: let’s build a website, let’s go and sell Halloween merchandise and bags of candy.”

The sheer scale of Halloween for a business like Mars Wrigley means that the product plans are set eighteen months in advance; production lines are running by February — hence the imperative to sell online. “But we challenged ourselves. We said, we can’t just solve for Halloween by putting everything online; it has to be something that enhances the experience.”

Mehrish wanted to digitize the physical experience of Halloween, but make it more engaging than a website. To build on that idea, the company held a one-week hackathon. “Our agencies and tech partners came back with ideas, and we finally picked one. We didn’t have a lot of time; we had to launch on October 1st, because I wanted to stretch the Halloween ritual from one day to 30 days.” The result: a virtual Halloween experience known as Treat Town.

How Treat Town Works

Treat Town can be experienced on the free app or through a browser. Candy-givers and trick or treaters sign up and create profiles (there are no images of children in Treat Town; kids are encouraged to design their own Halloween avatars. Candy-givers can design and decorate their virtual door and geo-locate it on a map, purchase candy credits from Mars to seed the app, and decide whether anyone on Treat Town can visit their door, or friends and family only. They can even set different levels of reward for friends and family and strangers.

Trick or treaters knock on the virtual door. Through a partnership with Walmart, Target and other retailers to make it possible to redeem points for candy online; alternatively, a QR coupon can be generated and redeemed in-store. Finally, there’s a donation option. “A lot of candy gets wasted after Halloween. The way donation works is Mars converts points into hard cash, and writes a check to the Boys and Girls Club of America.”

The martech layer

As existing Acquia clients, said Mehrish, the decision to use their technology for Treat Town was an easy one. “Acquia Drupal is our CMS for all of our web properties; we have been on a transformation journey to actually upgrade all of our web properties on the Acquia platform. It’s the engine that serves up a lot of the content you see on the app — everything you see from the landing page which allows you to click through to the iOS and Android stores, and also the content which gets served up when you are in the app experience.”

To deliver content to a variety of channels, Mars is using a combination of the headless and traditional versions of CMS offered by Acquia. “In the next version of this, I would love to go completely headless, and really go to a micro-services-based architecture, but this time it’s a combination. We’ve liked the fact that Acquia gives us added functionality on top of Drupal, and that it’s building an eco-system — it’s not content being a CMS. We can stay with the platform for a lot more use cases than just the CMS use case. Across all of our initiatives, whether it’s direct-to-consumer and building our eCommerce engines to website transformation, we are heading towards a micro-services-based architecture, and tools such as Acquia really play a big part in that.”

All the technologies involved in the experience have to operate at scale. “For example, the credit card API is Stripe. Microsoft’s engine behind Minecraft is the engine we have used, called PlayFab, for the tokenization of the candy points. Mapbox is the app for the mapping piece, and to overlay the doors on the map. All of these components have to scale together, and we had to be confident they would play nicely with each other.” On the creative side, Disney, a long-time Mars partner, brought its haunted house assets.

Digital solutions agency Bounteous was originally tagged to work on the creative side of the project. “But we realized the deep integration required between the creative and the development teams, and so for this version we picked Bounteous for both.” Bounteous had experience working with the other components of the experience.

This year, Treat Town is U.S. only, but Mehrish expects it to be globalized. “Halloween is not just U.S. only.”

You can play Treat Town only through end of October, so no time to waste.

This story first appeared on MarTech Today.

About The Author

Kim Davis is the Editorial Director of MarTech Today. Born in London, but a New Yorker for over two decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space. He first wrote about marketing technology as editor of Haymarket’s The Hub, a dedicated marketing tech website, which subsequently became a channel on the established direct marketing brand DMN. Kim joined DMN proper in 2016, as a senior editor, becoming Executive Editor, then Editor-in-Chief a position he held until January 2020. Prior to working in tech journalism, Kim was Associate Editor at a New York Times hyper-local news site, The Local: East Village, and has previously worked as an editor of an academic publication, and as a music journalist. He has written hundreds of New York restaurant reviews for a personal blog, and has been an occasional guest contributor to Eater.

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