CMO of the Week: Mars’ Gabrielle Wesley

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Gabrielle Wesley began working for Mars five years ago when she held the role of senior director of marketing in the $1 billion Mars Petcare segment working on brands including Cesar, Sheba and Pedigree brands.

Gabrielle Wesley began working for Mars five years ago when she held the role of senior director of marketing in the $1 billion Mars Petcare segment working on brands including CESAR, SHEBA and PEDIGREE brands.  

In June, Wesley left the pet care segment to join “the sweeter side of the business,” she says and took the helm as chief marketing officer of Mars Wrigley North America leading the multi-billion dollar portfolio of iconic brands that include M&M’S,  SNICKERS, SKITTLES, STARBURST, ORBIT and ALTOIDS.

“When people think of Mars, they think about our wonderful brands of M&M’S and SNICKERS and where the company started,” says Wesley. “I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility and excitement to take these brands to the next level.”

In her new role, Wesley is helping introduce the company’s portfolio of brands to the next generation of consumers and build loyalty to older consumers by making them a part of pleasurable experiences.

“It's really through rituals,” says Wesley. “Whether it's Halloween or other holidays, those are the first introductions. Whether that's in store, or through our partnership with the NFL, making sure that Snickers and all our other brands are in every NFL stadium or every NFL household. It’s to be wherever anyone decides they want to treat themselves whether that's a movie theater or a sporting event or whether that's through DoorDash or Instacart. It's being wherever they are because we know that their opportunity to be themselves and treat themselves is more complex than it's ever been.”

Wesley began her career at General Mills and has also held senior marketing roles at ConAgra Foods and TreeHouse Foods, before joining Mars. Brand Innovators caught up with Wesley to discuss TikTok, brands in culture and holidays. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you talk about how you're thinking about the various brands that you work on, and how you're showing up in culture?

I've been in brand marketing for a really long time. One of the things that I've seen change over the last year is the importance of brands in culture to maintain relevancy. When I first started, you had a TV ad that you really liked, a print ad, and maybe a couple of coupons. But the world of how we reach consumers has changed very much. It is tremendously important that our brands have a place within culture and reflect the consumers that we talk to. 

Whether it's M&M’S, which really has rooted itself in connections and belonging with characters that you see and love that reflect some of the fun and challenges and connections that we have in culture. Or the friendships that we see between the red and yellow characters, or the orange having anxiety or green changing shoes. These are all things that our consumers relate to because it reflects their lives. By bringing that to the forefront of culture, it allows us to connect with our consumers in a personal way. 

One perfect example is the recent news around Skittles because unfortunately, Skittles were thrown at Harry Styles concert. No, we weren’t able to protect Harry and anyone else that may be misusing Skittles, but it was nice for us to be able to respond and reiterate why people love the brand because they like to eat the rainbow, not throw the rainbow. 

Can you talk about what audiences you're looking to target and how you're showing up for these audiences?

The interesting thing is that our products are beloved by young and old. The challenge that we have is that everyone gets introduced to our products at different points in time. For example, Halloween and other seasons are a time when many people get introduced to our brands for the very first time. We're constantly introducing who we are, what we're about, and the seasons offer a great opportunity to treat yourself with our brands. 

Every Halloween, every November and December holiday, every spring holiday and every Valentine's Day is an opportunity for us to introduce our brands to a whole new generation of customers. We're always looking across the gamut of people but we're really looking at Gen Z and millennials. As we are starting to build relationships with those generations and introducing them to our brands it allows those traditions to continue as they get older.

The CPG category has seen a large spike in sales since the pandemic. How are you maintaining that momentum during the economic downturn?

The pandemic really put a lot of things in perspective, both your mental health and your physical health, and people have become more balanced and aware of where and how they're treating themselves. We saw a spike in the amount of people who are willing to treat themselves through the pandemic and that's continued as we start to get back into normalcy. 

During the pandemic, we saw consumers buy larger packs but in harder economic times, people started to think about treating themselves differently. The level of treating comes back to food and things that are at more of an accessible price point. Consumers turn to our category and brands that they love for comfort and to treat themselves in an affordable way.  One of the things that we see and have seen in environment in our category is that gifting for our category goes up so people making homemade treats or making candy packets or gift bags have increased. We're starting to see an uptick in that type of treating and gifting as well.

Do you have any special plans for the holidays to promote the products?

We love the December holidays. It's a fantastic time for all our brands, but specifically, M&M’S. We have iconic communications, like the legendary M&M’S holiday ad that signals the start of the holidays. that we always share around this time of year. One of the things we are so proud of is that the M&M’S characters are more well-known than Santa Claus. 

We have a host of holiday themes, flavors and packaging that really allows people to celebrate the seasons however they see fit, whether that's baking, decorating with our iconic red and green M&M’S blend or gifting with our DOVE truffles tube, our brands are at the forefront of that. Holidays also tend to be really big game times which means  Snickers is there as you watch the big game, very front and center.

Speaking of the big game, do you have any Super Bowl plans? 

Very interesting question. At Mars, we know that the biggest brands deserve the biggest stage and Super Bowl is certainly one of the biggest stages. While I can't share more at this time, stay tuned for more updates to come.

Can you talk about the digital channels you're using and even how you're thinking of channels like TikTok and the metaverse?

The world of connection is ever changing. Our brands have a presence everywhere and we're learning and understanding as we go along. The pandemic made TikTok mainstream. We are definitely there. We're dabbling in the metaverse with a few of our brands and continuing to try all new channels and platforms in order to make connections with consumers. For us, being everywhere is important, and learning how to be there effectively is just as important. 

Prior to working for Mars, you've also worked at General Mills and other brands. Can you talk about how some of your past positions have helped prepare you for your current role?

The interesting thing about my career is that I've been really privileged to work on amazing brands. And every time in every experience, I feel like I'm getting introduced to brand and marketing all over again which makes this dynamic category even more interesting.

It is really about the people, infusing consumer insights and being consumer obsessed. These elements are really at the forefront of being successful in brand management. I'm fortunate to be able to say that I've worked in lots of different categories, with lots of different brands, across many different demographics that have allowed me to add to my toolkit in order to really drive consumer obsession with my marketing teams.  I've lived it and I continue to be obsessed with how consumers think, feel and behave when it comes to brand building. 

Do you have any predictions for brand building in 2023?

The rate of change is going to continue to be lightning speed. Brand safety will continue to be front and center for a lot of brands going forward. The platforms that are able to get closer to ensuring brand safety will be the most successful. That's going to be a major concern for advertisers going forward. It's something that's top of mind for all of us in this space, but we will start to make inroads next year.

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