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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Brand saliency

It’s this belief that has seen Mars Wrigley doubling down on core brand activities and advertising during the COVID-19 crisis. As Hill points out, it’s well known companies that invest in their brands during times of recession and crisis generally do best.

“We know memories are fragile, and that we have to create mental availability of our brands. That’s pretty commonly known,” Hill comment. “For me, all this crisis has done is reinforced the need to be consistent and true to your brand. We made sure core brands remained visible to consumers and we continued to invest in them both in our comms and innovation.

“And we have been pretty consistent with our messaging. We had some copy for new products which wasn’t appropriate to the environment we were in, so we chose the right copy for the moment. It wasn’t specific to COVID-19, but more about the world we live in.

“So it [the COVID-19 crisis] hasn’t really changed the way I think about marketing, it’s really reinforced the need for consistency and to remain relevant and available to consumers.”

What’s more, Hill stresses marketing’s role has always been to really understand the consumer landscape and navigate that on behalf of the organisations they work for.

“Marketing has always been about identifying consumer needs and translating that into how the business will deliver to them. That role hasn’t changed,” he says.  

Longer-term trends

As for the longer-term implications of the COVID-19 crisis on consumer and societal trends, Hill highlights a crystallisation of the holistic health and wellness trend.

“Mental health will take a huge leap forward with this. That will lead to a proliferation of products seeking to deliver to that opportunity,” he says. Another trend he notes is rapid acceptance of digital delivery systems, which he sees unlocking interesting new brand formats.

“A lot of FMCG products are not well aligned to this direct-to-consumer model as they’re low-cost items and fulfillment is different. But as people are expecting more products to be delivered to them, as a marketing community we have to reimagine our brands and products to deliver to that,” Hill says. “With even more digitally fluid lives, we are going to need to continue to evolve. It has been in play for a while, but we’re going to have to fast-track that now.”   

The third big trend for Hill is localisation. “As we move into a world of cocooning, people are looking not just for brands they can trust, but ones they know where they come from,” he says.

“We’ll see a lot more of that – just look at consumers demanding made in Australian aisles in Woolworths. We recognise that as a company, which is why we’re so heavily invested in our Australian production.”  

And it’s a story with long duration. Hill notes Mars has invested $100 million in its Ballarat plant since 2012. The plant has been making M&Ms since 1986 and was the site where the FMCG’s PODs were invented.

“That puts us in a good position moving forward. People will want to know products are being made locally and that cocooning is here to stay for some time,” he says. “FMCG is the only industry that’s increased investment in local manufacturing in the last 10 years. It’s really important for us to be part of that story.”

Yet with chunks of Victoria now entering another lockdown as COVID-19 community transmission spreads, Hill agrees marketers are need to continue to be able to pivot quickly.  

“We need to make sure we have marketing plans that make sense for different parts of Australia now,” he says. “The reality is Victoria is looking very different to the rest of the country and we have to be mindful that one state now has a very different feel to the rest. We’re looking at our plans for next one to two quarters to understand if we need to adapt for Victoria, and will continue to make further adjustments to suit.

“Our strategic focus is to continue to get great products and innovations out the door, and we have plenty more in the pipeline for the business.”   

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