‘Everyone snacks’: How Mars Wrigley is pursuing growth in emerging markets

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His goal is to change how half the world snacks. As president of global emerging markets for Mars Wrigley, Blas Maquivar is constantly thinking of ways to “expand the penetration and reach” of chocolate, gum, mints, and fruity confections across more than 130 countries. In this episode of the McKinsey on Consumer and Retail podcast, Maquivar talks about Mars Wrigley’s new digital initiatives, its competitive advantages in the battle for talent, and its purpose-driven strategies for growing the treats and snacking category in emerging markets. He also reveals what the COVID-19 pandemic has taught him about leadership. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with McKinsey’s Monica Toriello. Subscribe to the podcast.

Monica Toriello: We are recording this episode in October, which, in some parts of the world, means Halloween is just around the corner. To many people, Halloween is synonymous with candy—lots of candy. Our guest on today’s episode lives in the world of candy, gum, and fruity confections.

Blas Maquivar is president of global emerging markets at Mars Wrigley, the maker of iconic global brands, including M&Ms, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Starburst, Lifesavers, and Doublemint. Blas oversees a $2.5 billion business that employs 6,500 people and encompasses more than 130 countries across Asia, Australia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Those regions are home to about 65 percent of the world’s population.

Blas first joined Mars 11 years ago as general manager of Mars Chocolate in Mexico. He went on to lead the entire Latin American region, then the UK; then he became president of the global chocolate business before taking on his current role, starting in January 2019. Prior to joining Mars, he worked at PepsiCo, Microsoft, and P&G. Welcome to the podcast, Blas.

Corporate headshot of Blas Maquivar, president of global emerging markets at Mars Wrigley
Blas Maquivar
Corporate headshot of Blas Maquivar, president of global emerging markets at Mars Wrigley

Blas Maquivar: Thank you, Monica. I’m super happy to chat with you about something that consumers love: our candy. Many countries around the world are celebrating Halloween. It’s not only in North America; some countries in Europe and Asia have adopted that ritual as well. It’s a great occasion for Mars Wrigley to be able to place a smile on consumers’ faces.

Monica Toriello: Before we dive in, please clear this up for us: you lead global emerging markets, but you live in the United Kingdom. What’s the story there?

Blas Maquivar: It’s a combination of a business reason and a personal reason. From the business point of view, it’s because I lead many time zones. Living in London allows me to have a conversation with Asia in my morning, which is Asia’s evening; then with the Middle East or Africa during my afternoon; and then, in my evenings, with my Latin American leaders.

On the personal side, I lived in London when I led our United Kingdom business from 2015 to 2017. I am Mexican, and my partner is Puerto Rican, but we really enjoyed our time in London. We left for Chicago when I took on a global role, but when I was asked to lead emerging markets, my family and I wanted to move back to London. Before COVID-19, I traveled the world; probably 70 percent of my time was spent traveling. That has changed, as you can imagine.

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Consumers’ snacking behaviors

Monica Toriello: Later on, we’ll talk more about your post-COVID-19 travel schedule. But first, let’s talk about people’s snacking behaviors. I’ve heard you say that in the middle of the pandemic, chewing-gum sales went down because people don’t really chew gum at home; they mostly chew gum outside the home. But candy and chocolate sales went up because people like to snack when they’re sitting on the couch watching a movie or playing board games with their family, so they’re buying packs of candy and bags of chocolate.

What are the trends and patterns that you’re seeing now, Blas? How did consumer snacking behavior change between, say, mid-2020 and today?

Blas Maquivar: I think what we’re seeing now aren’t new trends, but rather trends that existed before the pandemic and are accelerating. One big trend is the digital default, as we call it: digital shopping has quintupled over the past 18 months. Another big consumer trend is what we call “back to nature and back to home.” We discovered new activities and rituals inside our homes during COVID-19 lockdowns: cooking, playing board games, watching more movies with family, inviting a few friends over to enjoy being at home. A third trend is health and wellness: consumers are more aware of what they are eating and more aware of their mental health.

The challenge is not identifying these trends—we already know them, and the majority of the industry knows them. The real challenge is what you do about it: having the speed and agility to be one step ahead of the competition and to delight consumers as they are embracing these trends.

Monica Toriello: What are some examples of how Mars Wrigley has been agile and innovative during this global pandemic?

Blas Maquivar: One example is that we accelerated the building of digital capabilities across our markets; we’re really investing in talented associates. We also transformed—and are continuing to transform—our portfolio to satisfy the consumer from that digital angle, because the portfolio that will win in a Carrefour or a Walmart or a convenience store is not necessarily the portfolio that will win in digital.

In India, we launched an online Snickers store in partnership with Swiggy, which is one of the crucial digital players in India. Also, knowing that consumers were celebrating a lot at home, we doubled down on our My M&Ms digital store, where you can send your photograph or a loved one’s photograph and get it printed on M&Ms. If you’re having a wedding or a party, you can personalize M&Ms with any logo or words or pictures you want printed on the candy. Another example from Mexico: we have a chocolate gifting brand called Turin, and we opened a Turin digital store.

Digital, or e-commerce, represents low to mid-single digits of our total business. Our intent is to have it become 20 percent of our business.

I can give you many examples where our brands tripled down on the digital world. The context of all of this is that digital, or e-commerce, represents low to mid-single digits of our total business. Our intent is to have it become 20 percent of our business.

As for the health and wellness trend, one way we’ve been agile is through our intense global expansion of the KIND brand, which is very well known in North America. We now sell KIND in the UK, Saudi Arabia, Australia, et cetera. Bringing the KIND brand across the world to capture that health and wellness trend that we’re seeing in snacking is very high on our agenda.

Winning in the digital world

Monica Toriello: When you say “double down” or “triple down” on digital capabilities, I imagine that partly means hiring new talent. How has Mars Wrigley attracted digital talent when you’re competing against companies in almost every industry for that talent?

Blas Maquivar: I believe the most important challenge that we need to tackle is talent and capabilities. If we get that right, the rest will come. And you’re right: it’s a fight for digital talent. I believe our most important advantage is that we are one of the few big family-owned companies in the world. That brings something very special to the Mars culture, in the sense of freedom, responsibility, mutuality, and the way we treat our associates. Also, the Mars Inc. purpose of doing what is right today so that we can have a bright tomorrow ties into Mars Wrigley’s purpose of “creating better moments to make the world smile,” and the combination of these two has allowed us to attract the right talent.

Is it easy? No. But I can tell you that in the majority of instances, we are able to attract the talent that we need because of these two big buckets: being family owned and being a purpose-driven company.

Monica Toriello: We’ll talk more about purpose a little later. For now, a tactical question: What is working in e-commerce? You talked about Snickers and My M&Ms and Turin. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your experiments with online channels?

Blas Maquivar: E-commerce or digital has sub-elements and different business models. You have the Walmarts or the Carrefours online, and pure plays like Amazon. But then you also have food-delivery players like Deliveroo in the UK, dark kitchens,1 and transportation players like Uber. All of these are different, and the consumer uses them for different jobs, different things. In food delivery, for example, the role of our brands is more of a snack at the end of the meal or a piece of gum to freshen your breath after eating Indian food.

So we need a bespoke solution for each of these business models. Digital is probably our most important growth opportunity, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We can’t use the same portfolio, the same brand with the same price, the same format, and the same packaging to win across all of these elements.

Reaching the emerging-market consumer

Monica Toriello: Speaking of bespoke solutions, I imagine that the treats and snacks market in the UK is pretty different from the market in, say, Asia. How would you characterize the treats and snacks industry in emerging markets? And have you found any big “unlocks”—any particularly successful strategies to get consumers in emerging markets to buy more Mars Wrigley products?

Blas Maquivar: Everyone snacks. A Mexican, an Egyptian, an American—everyone snacks. What changes is what they snack on and where they buy it.

In the emerging-market world, the majority of snacking is baked goods—cookies and biscuits—followed by salty snacks, like corn chips and potato chips. After that, but quite far down the list, is chocolate, because chocolate is more expensive than a cookie. The ingredients to make chocolate—cacao, sugar, milk—are significantly more expensive than the wheat to make a cookie. In the developed world, it’s the other way around. Chocolate and biscuits and cookies basically have the same penetration.

So our job in emerging markets is to figure out how to grow not just our market share but the size of the categories in which we compete—for example, chocolate. The emerging-market consumer, on average, eats 500 grams of chocolate per year. In the developed world, consumers eat five kilograms of chocolate per year—that’s ten times more. So our job is to figure out what we need to do to increase those 500 grams to one kilogram, one and a half, two. It will take years, generations, to do that. But we have to do it because the name of the game is penetration and reach. How do we increase the penetration and reach of chocolate?

We believe there are certain penetration barriers that we need to remove. It starts with mental availability. How do we ensure that the emerging-market consumer is aware of our brands? We need to have best-in-class advertising, supported with very robust media investment: TV, radio, et cetera. That unlocks the mental availability.

The second aspect is physical availability. Once Indians or Mexicans or Egyptians are aware of the brand called Snickers or M&Ms, when they go to their favorite shop, they need to find that brand. We need to have the right pricing, packaging, and display, anchored in the right route to market, to be able to reach the millions of mom-and-pop stores in emerging markets, as well as the convenience-store channel, other brick-and-mortar stores, and now the digital world. Today, chocolate doesn’t really have physical and digital availability in emerging markets. If you go to ten stores in emerging markets, you will find chocolate in less than five, but you will find cookies and biscuits in all ten. So, through the right pricing, packaging, display, and route to market, we will break the barrier of physical availability.

Finally, we need to make sure that our products do the right job for the right occasion. People snack for different reasons. We snack because we are a little bit hungry and it’s still two hours before lunch. Or you are watching a movie with your family and you want to share some chocolates. These occasions cannot be satisfied by the same format. It’s very difficult, for example, to cut a Snickers bar into ten pieces and give one piece to each of your family members; your hands will get sticky. M&Ms play a sharing role much better than Snickers. So having the right formats to satisfy the right jobs is the final unlocker of penetration.

Those three things—mental availability, physical availability, and having the right formats—will translate into 500 grams of chocolate becoming 700 grams, one kilogram, two kilograms, and so on until we, hopefully, will reach the developed-market per capita number. But, again, that will take generations.

Monica Toriello: I imagine another unlock is localizing tastes and flavors to align with the preferences of consumers in a market, right? Do you have a favorite flavor or product that’s available only in emerging markets?

Blas Maquivar: I’m Mexican, so I love spicy food. It’s very common for Mexicans to add spiciness to fruit, like a spicy mango or spicy pineapple. In Mexico, we have brands called Lucas and Skwinkles. Imagine Skittles, but super spicy, with tamarind spices and chili flavors. That’s one of my favorites. Also, in Mexico we have a brand called Turin that I mentioned earlier. It’s chocolate, but we add a little bit of liquor—we have partnerships with companies like Diageo, so we add Baileys or whisky into the chocolate—and it’s an adult proposition. I can name lots of other examples. Many countries have what we call local jewels: brands that are different and tailor-made to the local consumer.

Translating purpose into action

Monica Toriello: I was looking at Mars’s corporate website and I was struck by the prominence and pervasiveness of the words “purpose” and “sustainability”; they’re on almost every page of the site. Some of our listeners are probably thinking, “Those are just buzzwords that companies throw around all the time.” How does Mars’s purpose—“The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today”—manifest itself in your life and in the day-to-day work of Mars’s employees?

Blas Maquivar: Mars Wrigley’s purpose, which stems directly from Mars Inc.’s purpose, is “creating better moments to make the world smile.” We believe our purpose is to put a smile on everyone who comes in contact with us. It starts with our associates and the way we develop, compensate, and engage them. In return, our associates will decide to stay with us, and they will be motivated to put a smile on the faces of the people in our value chain.

How do we treat our cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, for example? We help them succeed. We provide knowledge, capital, financing. We ensure that we buy cocoa only from farms that do not hire children. In return, the cocoa farmer will decide to continue to farm cocoa so that we have enough cocoa to produce our chocolates.

For the consumer, we provide the best products possible, with high quality. We have a marketing code that we do not advertise to children. On our labeling, we are very clear about our ingredients. So we place a smile on the consumer, and in return the consumer decides to buy our products.

As for our customers, we help them grow the chocolate, gum, or fruity confections category in their businesses by providing know-how. We help them profit and grow, and we put a smile on them. And if we both prosper, we have a better world.

That’s the way we see it. And we mean it—these are not words that I just invented. This is my daily life. Every decision I make is guided by “am I placing a smile on someone?” That’s how we try to bring our corporate purpose to life.

Monica Toriello: What’s your response to someone who says, “But, Blas, snack companies contribute to health conditions like obesity and diabetes. How does that square with Mars Wrigley’s purpose?”

Blas Maquivar: I am super proud of our products, and I truly believe there is space in everyone’s life for chocolate and gum, so long as they’re consuming it responsibly. I completely agree with you that there is obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, you name it—and Mars Wrigley wants to be part of the solution.

What are we doing about it? First, we offer options. In our chocolate brands, we offer products that are below 250 or 200 calories. In our labeling, we are very transparent about our ingredients, the number of calories, the amount of sugar. We do not advertise to children; we do not use characters to convince children to buy things; we do not sell directly to middle schools and below. We offer options like KIND and Nature’s Bakery. So the consumer has options.

We’re also working with others across the industry. When I was leading the UK, I was part of a food manufacturing industry group that worked hand in hand with the government on a holistic approach to the obesity epidemic, for example, because that requires education, the right policies, et cetera. In summary, I’m very proud of what we do. We are not turning a blind eye to the situation. We want to be part of the solution.

A valuable leadership lesson

Monica Toriello: Let’s end with a future-of-work question. Earlier, you mentioned your prepandemic travel schedule. Mars has said that it will cut business travel by at least half compared with 2019 levels. How do you see your travel schedule changing? What does the future of work look like for you?

Blas Maquivar: Before COVID-19, I was traveling about 75 percent of the time. If you ask my wife about this, she will probably answer you in a different tone. Anyway, I was traveling that much because my style of leadership is connecting, inspiring, touching the hearts and minds of people, and the way I tried to do that was by being there—visible leadership.

But I can tell you now that I was wrong. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought me something positive, which is to realize that even if I’m not doing heavy traveling, I don’t need to lose my essence as a leader who wants to be present and wants to inspire.

I do, of course, still see myself traveling—because there is still a need for physical connection—but definitely not at the levels that I used to. I think I’ll be traveling around 40 percent of my time instead of 75 percent. Many things that I used to do by traveling, I now know how to do through the digital world: through videoconferences, virtual “breakfasts with Blas,” or chats with small groups of associates. I’ve learned that connection and inspiration can be achieved in the virtual world. So without having all the answers—because no one knows for sure, really—I do see a world with less travel and with much more flexibility, but still with a need for physical connection.

Monica Toriello: Well, I’m happy for your family; they get to spend a lot more time with you now. Thank you, Blas, for your insights and your candor. This was a fun conversation. To our listeners, thanks for tuning in. I wish you all a happy and safe and sweet Halloween!

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

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