CMO of the Week: Mars Wrigley's Sarah Long

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When COVID-19 drastically impacted grocery & convenience store purchase activity, checkout aisle mainstays like Mars Wrigley’s M&M’s should have been among the most adversely affected by the overnight shift. 

When COVID-19 drastically impacted grocery & convenience store purchase activity, checkout aisle mainstays like Mars Wrigley’s M&M’s should have been among the most adversely affected by the overnight shift. 

Instead, the opposite happened, as consumers continued to seek them out despite all the retail changes. “We are a highly impulse-driven business, so the foot traffic changing absolutely had an impact at the beginning. But what was interesting to see was how ecommerce expanded, and M&M’s was very very successful through COVID,” says Sarah Long, who joined Mars Wrigley North America mid-pandemic as its chief marketing officer in June 2020. “We are in people’s hearts and minds, and we’re seeing them continue to grow even coming out of COVID, which is great. Our brands are loved and we see that from our consumer surveys. They’re being used as a means to still bring smiles and fun moments at home in an otherwise very tough year.”

That’s why Mars Wrigley has announced a series of innovative partnerships to help sustain that relevance in the years ahead. In May, the company announced it was teaming up with Microsoft to optimize manufacturing technology & efficiencies, and in April Mars joined forces with companies like PepsiCo and McCormick to accelerate supply-chain sustainability in the fight against climate change.

And Long brings over two decades’ experience working with globally known CPG and beverage brands to her current role. Originally from Canada, Long began her marketing career with Procter & Gamble in brand management for Swiffer and Cover Girl, later joining MolsonCoors, Diageo and Syncapse in senior marketing and managing director roles. Most recently, she spent six years with Remy Cointreau, including three as chief marketing officer.

Brand Innovators caught up with Long from her home office in New York to learn more about the benefits of marketing pandemic-proof products, why she’s still investing in the Super Bowl and the concept behind the post-lockdown Extra ad that everyone’s talking about. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: The pandemic has changed a lot of our behaviors, including how we consume media. How has your media mix evolved over the past year to reflect some of those shifts? 

Sarah Long: We’ve shifted a tremendous amount of our media finding ways to connect with our consumer base and bring those moments to life. We’ve always been a partner of and continue to work with new platforms. We’ve done a lot of great work and projects with Tik Tok this year, for example. We’ve also pivoted to programs like our Treat Town activation last year, where we created a digital trick-or-treating platform so consumers could find a way to keep that important Halloween season alive. But we still have an element of linear TV as a moment to connect on a larger scale as well.

This year’s Super Bowl proved to be one of the only live telecasts that didn’t lose a significant share of audience from years past, as we’ve seen with awards shows and other tentpole events. How has that impacted your media plans?

This year we were on the Super Bowl with M&Ms, and we performed quite well by industry evaluation and with consumer playback. How that ad performed was very, very strong. The biggest brands should be at the biggest moments, and that’s how we treated Super Bowl this year. We continue to look at all of those media moments with tremendous review. We had some presence on The Oscars this year, a lot with Snickers around the NFL Draft. We find the right brands for the right moments.

You mentioned Treat Town as a way to keep your candy brands relevant during a virtual Halloween celebration last fall. What might your in-person activations start to look like again as we start to explore hybrid live-and-digital environments?

We still maintain that role in consumers' lives, and we already do some events and will continue to lean in more and more through our partnership with the NFL, which has the balance of the media side and in the stadiums at the games. As we re-emerge, we’ll try to see ourselves present in more experiential things during COVID.

Mars has made a lot of commitments to sustainability in the coming years. How will those factor into your marketing messaging?

We’ve said corporately that we’d like to be out of plastic by 2025. Any new product or anything we initiate, we put tremendous scrutiny into it so that everything we're launching has a sustainability angle or a partner that reinforces recycling behaviors. There's efforts across the board, both in our existing products and how we move them into more sustainable packaging. Orbit [gum]’s mega-pack we just launched educates consumers on better recycling habits, and we’ll be following through on that ambition with other products moving forward. 

What progress has Mars made in its commitments to accelerating diversity, equity & inclusion this past year, and what actions have you taken as a marketer to help advance them? 

One of our big ones that we’ve just initiated was our Skittles Pride program. We took our rainbows off the packaging and made all the grey lentils. With every pack sold, we give a dollar to GLAAD. We’re really connecting and bringing visibility to the community. That’s an important part of our role as a brand that’s very connected to Gen Z and activating in the right way. It’s a very authentic program that we do, and speaks to how a brand is credible when we participate. That’s probably the one you’ll see most coming forward.

We also have our “#HeretobeHeard” campaign as part of our Full Potential program for advancement of gender equality in the workplace. We asked women what needs to change so more women can reach their full potential. It really saw a tremendous associate engagement and also got some value externally. We have a whole team dedicated within New York to advance our initiative and be quite purposeful.  

Another one of your brands, Extra gum, made quite the splash with its “For When It’s Time” commercial featuring couples making out in public with the imminent return to real-life experiences. How did the concept come about, and how has it been received?

 

It’s been quite interesting. The views of our long-form [ad] – the 2:30 – are some of the highest we’ve ever seen. It just speaks to the power of the creative. When we started off the year, gum needed to come back in a big way because that was a category that was impacted by COVID with impulse and foot traffic. The use of gum was primarily external in workplaces and occasions. 

We’re very good at knowing where our consumers are and what brings them to life and how to really entertain them in the most rewarding ways. We really understand those insights. We really got the right balance of the message of what we hope the truth looks like in its exaggerated way, that was really important to us to have the timeliness of when the market would be ready — and do it in the most positive way. And of course within that, it’s clearly a gum-use occasion, being back in social [environments] so we wanted to make sure we struck the right balance. We had a killer song [Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”] from a fellow Canadian, of course, to land the right message. 

It went down so well in Canada, even though they weren’t ready to receive the message in quite the same way [with the vaccine rollout]. As an organization, we found the right balance around COVID and the future and that positive outlook, which we do quite well. We found the fun and the joy of looking ahead 

What upcoming initiatives are you excited about for the remainder of 2021?

We have some great followups to the Extra campaign and the notion of a fresh start — we’ll be continuing to animate that brand and gum as a whole. We just launched our Skittles gummies, and the success out of the gate for that is exceeding our expectations. Halloween is something we talk about 365 days out of the year. I'm excited about the prospect that families will be able to be back out, and seeing how that extends to the holiday season starting with Thanksgiving will be something that excites me in how we are rolling that out. 

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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