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‘Acts, not ads’: Mars explains how it’s navigating purpose in 2020

Consumer goods giant Mars aims to inject purpose into the DNA of each of its brands. But as the Black Lives Matters movement gains momentum, Andy Pharoah, vice president of corporate affairs and sustainability, urges marketers to embrace “acts, not ads”.

Pharoah sat down with The Drum to explain the corporation’s relationship with purpose and social good, particularly how it is guided by the ‘Mars Compass’. Pointing towards the ‘world we want tomorrow’, the concept urges leaders at the company to deliver strong financial performance and quality growth, while acting as a trusted partner in society with a positive social impact. Executive performance is measured against these criteria.

Pharaoh said: “When our brands do purposeful things, it comes from a solid and sound foundation. It's not cause-related marketing, a hit for the day or for the quarter, or for the year.”

And, he says, it is primarily steered by consumers. He said: “We need to be very close to the consumer. The consumer is our boss. We've always looked for marketing that truly connects and what became increasingly apparent is that purpose was incredibly important.”

But what purpose could dog food company Pedigree have, for example? Pharaoh has an answer ready. “Dogs make the world better for humans. they bring out the very best in people. Pedigree’s ‘Feed the Good’ campaign not only connects with consumers but then emphasizes the great role that dogs play in society. It also gets dogs out of shelters and into loving homes. Some campaigns have literally emptied shelters.”

He points to Skittles’ ’Donate the Rainbow’ Pride campaign, as a prime example of Mars’ efforts. “It raises money, awareness and is really incredibly touching.” It’s not active all year round but it’s been consistently rolled out for four years running, with more to come – this year including a partnership with Gay Times.

But not every topic is so easily tackled by the confectioner.

When an issue – such as the Black Lives Matter movement – suddenly becomes the dominant topic of conversation in society, well-meaning corporate teams must tread carefully.

“There is racial injustice and a lack of equality in the US. And it is heartbreaking. It has to change. And if it’s going to change, businesses need to change, communities need to change. People need to change and there needs to be a giant, amongst other things, there needs to be a giant conversation about it.”

“There needs to be a giant conversation about it, and to some extent, that's starting to happen.”

Mars has had to change., too. Responding to allegations that the brand was itself perpetuating racist prejudices via rice brand Uncle Ben’s, Mars acknowledged that the Texan rice farmer mascot, first used in 1946, might not be fit for the 2020s.

“We recognise that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do,“ the company said. “Racism has no place in society. We stand in solidarity with the Black community, our associates and our partners in the fight for social justice.”

Mars is not alone in this; several brands are currently reviewing mascots and brand identities which reflect racist stereotypes, and it’s unclear how the firm will “evolve” the brand. Pharaoh said: “Talk is very cheap. But sometimes also, it is disproportionately important to say something. We took that view. It was important to us, our consumers and our associates. When you say things externally, it has even more weight than what you're saying internally.

“We decided not to communicate through our consumer brands very much was because we believe that fundamentally what needs to happen is acts, not ads.”

Mars does have power. For one, it literally feeds millions and it says it has the environmental impact of a nation the size of Panama (a footprint that renewable energy is helping to negate). But even speaking out against racism, could itself be deemed a political statement amid a charged discourse in the US.

For Mars, at least on the surface, the focus is on “policy, not politics”. In 2016, it tried to unite Clinton and Trump voters around a love of dogs with Pedigree. Will it be brave enough to try such a stunt in the coming 2020 election?

It's not all about grand gestures for Pharaoh though. “Brands, through small things, even just how they naturally talk to people, can have a transformational role in society. And it doesn't all have to be about the high-profile campaigns, there‘s nothing worse than trying to force-fit purpose.”

Pharoah spoke with The Drum‘s executive editor Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum‘s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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