CMO interview: How Mars Wrigley's marketing chief is navigating unchartered consumer waters

Firm brand positioning, serious data-driven decision making and a commitment to strategic marketing are all part of this marketing leader's arsenal for coping with the COVID-19 crisis


There are plenty of “red herrings and wild goose chases” marketers can pursue in the name of brand building, Mars Wrigley Australia marketing director, Ben Hill, believes.

“Our job as marketers is not just how best to invest the company’s money in marketing programs, but also not to waste it,” he says. “I think there has been a lot of wastage by brands spending on messaging that’s not consistent or coherent with what they stand for.”

It’s the pursuit of strategic and commercially-led marketing from years of brand experience across brands such as Bega Cheese, Mondelez International, Nestle and SPC Ardmona that Hill brought to Mars Wrigley when he joined in mid-February. In his first few months, which coincided with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hill says the overarching plan for marketing has held firm.

“When I came in, there was a clear strategy around where we’re trying to get to in the next couple of years. And that’s what the business needed us to deliver on,” he says.  

One of these is future-proofing local production of its snacking products. This month, Mars Wrigley Australia announced a fresh $300,000 investment into its Ballarat, Victoria plant in order to produce M&M’s latest offering, M&M Pretzels. It’s part of a $37 million investment Mars Wrigley Australia committed to this year to upgrade the Australian factory.

However, when COVID-19 hit, reassessing marketing plans and tactics quickly was clearly vital. A number of campaigns relied on out-of-home for example, and had to be pivoted. In addition, a big cinema deal with Maltesers had to be adapted.

Ben HillCredit: Mars Wrigley
Ben Hill


Another category hit globally is gum and mints, where Mars Wrigley is a strong market leader. As foot traffic dropped out of cities, office buildings and key convenience store channels, a drop in consumption ensued. With a program for Extra chewing gum linked to study and focus set to run via universities and on campuses about to commence, Hill and his team halted the physical campaign, dialled up online communications instead and kept momentum going.

On the flip side, one growth area in recent years that’s accelerated during the crisis is the in-home experience, providing further opportunities for the M&Ms product line in particular.

“There have been a few tweaks as a result of COVID, and there are categories where we have real opportunity to pursue more growth and exploit that. Then there’s others where we have to reassess the moments and occasions for consumers engaging with our brands,” Hill says.

“The core brands we want to grow stay the same, but the way we go about growing might have to change.”  

Data-driven thinking

To inform decision making, Hill’s team has tapped data observations locally and abroad, such as in markets where they’re more advanced with COVID-19 or similar to Australia. It’s homed in on insights from partners such as Mediacom, customers like Coles and Woolworths, and introduced a daily consumer insights tracker providing weekly communications to marketing and sales teams. All of this has provided a macro lens on consumer patterns.

“We have had to be speculative in some areas during this time, while being very data-driven in others,” Hill says. “It’s been a good time to be close to our customers as well as consumers, as there is a lot of unpredictability out there.”

The tracker, for example, helps the team better understand what is happening, what trends are growing, which look like they’re here to stay, and which are one-offs linked to things like panic buying. This is complemented by a strong strategic focus on the key moments consumers are consuming Mars Wrigley products.

But data can’t work in isolation, and what Hill says has helped Mars Wrigley steer through the crisis and pivot so quickly is also a succinct understanding of what its brands stand for. He points to a planned a large outdoor experiential program planned for M&Ms as a case in point.

“We couldn’t go ahead with that, and that required a quick pivot. What has allowed us to do that is we have a very clear understanding of our brands, what they stand for and ambitions,” he says. “Within that framework, we were able to pivot to something more meaningful online while still being true to the brand.”  

Knowing one of the key elements of the M&Ms brand is bringing fun to the world, Hill says his team knew people would still be looking for that in their homes. So M&Ms partnered with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to bring it to life on screens. The work included filming a series of comedians having conversations with a host and delivering these online.

The new M&M PretzelsCredit: Mars Wrigley
The new M&M Pretzels


“It was having a few laughs during tough times, but still very much linked to our brand and what it stands for in Australia. We possibly wouldn’t have looked at that partnership directly before,” Hill says.  

“We have also unlocked partnerships we already had and driven them further during this time. One of these is with 7/11 – as they were seeing changes to the customer base and foot traffic, and looking to online and delivery, we worked more closely on that. It’s been the same with Woolworths and Coles and their online offers, working to ensure we show up in key moments there as well.”

At a more strategic level, what’s also helped Hill navigate the crisis with authenticity are Mars Wrigley’s five key business principles: Quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.

“These guiding principles are reflected in the way we behave and interact with consumers, customers and ourselves and make it easier to make decisions even in challenging and rapidly moving times,” he says. “That’s the first thing to authenticity – linking back to what your company stands for before you start thinking about the brand programs.”

In an environment where there’s increased pressure on brands to relate and provide a position on key cultural trends and causes, it’s important to understand if your brand can authentically play, Hill continues.

“From a brand perspective, most of our brands have pre-existing positions in consumers’ hearts and minds and we look to emphasise that. Where it’s relevant, we will tap into cultural moments, but we let our corporate brand speak on issues, then consumer brands speak to those when it makes sense and in in way that makes sense,” he continues.

“Otherwise you end up with ads, as we’ve seen during this time, that could all be run by the same brands. We’re big on making sure our brands are distinctive and when they show up, people know who they are.”  

Up next: How the crisis is impacting Hill's thoughts on brand saliency and the CMO role, plus some key consumer trends worth paying attention to

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