Lining the checkout counters at superstores are countless packs of chewing gum. Orbit, Trident, Wrigley’s, Extra and Eclipse—all familiar household names. Rigidly packed and encased in shrink-wrap, they look and taste identical. They are a mindless addition to a consumer’s shopping cart, tossed onto the conveyer belt at the last minute.
Only one stands out among the rest. Enter Project 7, a producer of sugar-free gourmet gum and specialty candy. With eclectic flavors such as birthday cake, champagne dreams and rainbow ice, this new-age company is unique, from its organic and gluten-free labels to its brightly colored, soft-pack pouch.
Founded by Tyler Merrick ’00 in 2008, Project 7 is part of an emerging wave of social entrepreneurship companies designed to appeal to those with humanitarian hearts. The name itself reflects the company’s core mission of making products for good and changing the world by giving back to seven areas of need. Each gum and candy purchase supports one area: deforestation, hunger, education, emergency shelter, clean drinking water, anti-bullying programs or malaria treatment.
The Consumer Connection
Like many, Merrick’s winding road to success began at Texas A&M University. After visiting his then-girlfriend Taylor ’99 (now his wife) on campus, he fell in love with the captivating family atmosphere and traditions. As a student, Merrick ran his own small businesses on the side. Despite this, he found himself at risk of failing out of Mays Business School, a mistake that ultimately morphed into an invaluable lesson.
“I wasn’t that great of a student,” laughed Merrick. “By junior year, I was on probation. But Dr. Joe Townsend ’67 in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences gave me a second chance. I made the most of it and am forever grateful that he gave me that opportunity. I didn’t want to let him down.”
After graduating, Merrick returned home to work for his family pet food business, Merrick Pet Care, where the Willy Wonka-esque flavor combinations unique to Project 7 originated. As part of his role in the business, Merrick devised a specialty line of pet food with crazy concoctions such as Cowboy Cookout, California Roll, Wild Buffalo Grill and Campfire Trout. Merrick realized that he could ‘humanize’ pet food through consumer choice.
“I noticed that I could use marketing to change the way people thought about feeding their pets—it became an experience,” said Merrick. “I wanted to use that type of marketing to help people and charities through a product they purchased, and then I was introduced to social entrepreneurship.”
Another Second Chance
Social entrepreneurship is a growing field that combines the passion of fostering social change with the discipline and innovation of influential companies such as Google, Apple and Microsoft. Mission statements typically involve issues surrounding education, the environment, health, etc. Some companies, like Project 7, encompass many issues.
However, chewing gum is a competitive market and Merrick quickly found that a passion for humanitarian needs wasn’t enough to generate revenue. In fact, in its early stages, Project 7 almost failed as doors were closed and major customers were lost. “Consumers saw it as a fundraiser,” said Merrick. “They would buy the product and give a meal to someone or plant a tree, but then they moved back to their brand of choice.”
The solution was to market Project 7 more as a unique product and less as a charitable good. The company’s giving story was moved to the back of the package while the front focused solely on the gum. In response, consumers ultimately returned to the product and Project 7 began to flourish, now residing on the shelves of Target, Whole Foods and Starbucks.
“Having a second chance after flunking out of business school and then following through with that effort taught me a lot of about adversity and accomplishing a goal,” said Merrick. “The values and culture at Texas A&M reinforced the core principles in my life that helped me build a company like Project 7.”
In addition to chewing gum, Project 7 also offers its own brand of gummies and recently launched an organic candy with crunch on the outside and a chewy inside. To create its wild flavors, Merrick said the company’s research department typically analyzes trends in the restaurant, food and beverage markets. One of his favorite flavors (and possibly the weirdest) is sour caramel apple gum, while Moscow Mule and old-fashioned organic gummy bears soon became a staple product. But he’s quick to assure that not every new flavor is a success. “I once tried doing a tres leches cake gum flavor for H-E-B and it bombed; there are plenty of hits and misses,” he said.
To aspiring entrepreneurs, Merrick said, “If you have a full-time job and you’re afraid of getting started, start your new project on the side until you figure something out. Stay humble and ask for advice. Learn from your mistakes and come back from them.”
To learn how you can support aspiring Aggie entrepreneurs, contact Mark Klemm '81 below.