Privacy palls for foodmaker Mars in digital age

The family-owned global confectioner and petfood maker is learning to be more open
An early advert for the Mars Group promoting 'Milky Way' chocolate bars.

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Do a Google search for Victoria Mars, chairman of the foodmaker that bears her name, and the search engine asks whether you actually meant Veronica Mars, the US TV show.

The confusion highlights the success with which the Mars family and Mars Inc have avoided the media’s glare. Recently, however, the century-old company has been tentatively moving away from its policy of letting brands such as M&M’s, Snickers, Wrigley and Uncle Ben’s speak on its behalf.

“If we don’t talk about ourselves then people are going to make it up,” says Ms Mars in a rare interview at the margins of a consumer goods conference in New York. “That’s not what we want people to talk about. So we had to shift.”

Ms Mars’ reasoning is that consumers are not happy just relying on branding at product level. They want to know about the manufacturer too — its principles and the quality of its ingredients. And they are going to talk about it on social media whether Mars is talking or not.

“Finding the right ways to communicate while retaining our values is a challenge in today’s world where everyone wants to tweet everything all the time,” Ms Mars adds. “It’s a struggle.”

It is still unlikely that anyone would accuse Mars of oversharing, though. That is unsurprising, given that its secrecy has drawn comparisons to the reclusive Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The late Forrest Mars Sr, Ms Mars’ grandfather and the billionaire who drove much of the company’s expansion, took secrecy to an extreme. “He clamped a lid down so tight over there, we used to joke he was making bombs not bonbons,” recalled Nello Ferrara, a rival candy maker, in Joël Glenn Brenner’s best-selling book on the industry, The Emperors of Chocolate.

But the company, which makes food for pets as well as people, has at least built up a more active presence on Twitter, where its individual brands were far better established. Its @MarsGlobal corporate account has 12,800 followers, pumping out tweets on climate change and other reputation-burnishing topics.

Its Facebook page is often filled with comments from staff — or associates, as they are called. The company’s website provides far more information than in the past. “We never had web pages, you never would have been able to read about how we’re structured as a board [like you can today],” Ms Mars says. “We’re coming from zero to what you see today. That’s a shift. We had to come to a nice compromise.”

High walls were not the only thing Forrest Mars Sr built up. Under his leadership, Mars was known for paying extremely competitive wages, which continues today.

Employees tend to spend many years at the company and, even when they leave, many are part of the “Martians Reunited” network of 5,000 existing and former employees, who can connect on private LinkedIn and Facebook pages.

Victoria Mars

But for all its prowess at keeping staff for the long haul, it became clear a few years ago that the company’s lack of an external profile was proving an obstacle to recruiting talent in some markets, including the US. And when it did go to campuses, it shared less information about itself than others.

Addressing that failing has involved a greater focus on certain universities, closer collaboration between the recruitment and reputation teams, and a speaking engagement for Ms Mars at the “Great Place to Work” conference.

“[In] today’s generation, potential associates for us want to know who they’re going to work for and what the values are behind that corporation,” Ms Mars says.

But Mars, which admits it is on a learning curve, still has a long way to go to be deemed transparent.

It gives out basic financial performance figures, such as an annual sales figure ($33bn in 2014) and associate numbers (75,000).

But it declines to disclose its profitability or business strategy. This makes it more closed still than other privately held companies such as Lego or Ikea, which often give out detailed annual results.

Food safety is one of the focal points of Mars’ efforts to open up at least a little. David Crean, its global R&D director, has become a frequent blogger on LinkedIn in the belief that food safety needs to be approached in a different way that reflects advances in the way people communicate.

Foodmakers such as Mars can find themselves fielding questions on the topic from all over the world, he says. “Information shoots around the globe at the speed of light.”

In September the company opened a food safety centre in China to which it has invited scientists, suppliers and other experts to work together on the issue.

In a first for Mars, it will open up the centre to rivals as well, though Mr Crean declined to say which ones could be participating. “Yes, it is the first time to work so closely with competitors. In the past, we have worked more closely with suppliers so we’re going to a new level of collaboration,” he says.

The greater openness also reflects Mars’ shift away from a “build not buy” strategy to acquiring companies such as Wrigley and Iams pet care, which has broadened the range of outsiders it has to engage with. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway still owns a minority stake in Wrigley, for instance.

But a willingness to engage more with the public should not be confused with a desire to go public at some stage.

Mars’ goal is to remain family-owned for as long as possible, though Ms Mars admits that as in any family business, the bigger the family gets, the more difficult it becomes.

To that end chairmanship of the company rotates between family members on a triennial basis. Ms Mars, who is part of the fourth generation, has just completed her first year, and succession planning starts as much as 15 years in advance, she says.

Whoever is sitting in the chairman’s seat, Mars-the-company’s and Mars-the-family’s relationship with the outside world is likely to remain limited.

“There is a tipping point, where I do think you become too publicly focused on ‘look at me, look at me, look at me’,” she says. “That’s not what we want to do as an organisation. It’s much more of a softer way.”

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