Mars’ Jane Wakely Says True Inclusivity Means Removing Advertising’s Unconscious Biases

CMO talks diversity and how the brand is continuing its mission in quarantine on Adweek at Home

Mars, Inc.'s Pedigree brand has created Dogs on Zoom, a virtual pet adoption program. Pedigree

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At a time when civil rights protests across the country have prompted companies to take an inward look at their own diversity picture, Mars’ lead CMO Jane Wakely believes that all brands can and should do more to address these issues.

“I just want to say, personally, that it’s really important that we stand up as leaders and articulate our shock at the current events,” she said. “We have to do more as a society—and definitely as companies and governments—to address systemic, institutional injustices that we see in the world.”

Wakely was speaking as a featured guest during Adweek at Home, a virtual caucus of marketing and creativity’s most influential voices that kicked off Monday and continues throughout this week. In conversation with Adweek editor and svp of programming Lisa Granatstein (watch the full video below), Wakely covered a broad range of topics, including how Mars—a privately held, $35 billion colossus best known for candy brands like M&Ms and Snickers—continues to diversify into the pet-care segment, do its part to halt climate change and stay focused on brand purpose despite the challenges of a recessionary economy.

But Wakely’s most pointed and poignant remarks concerned diversity and what she sees as Mars’ and every company’s responsibility to do more than pay lip service to it.

“We have a clear, articulated company strategy: There is absolutely … no room for racism and discrimination of any kind,” she said. “But we back that up with action in our brand portfolios. We have a firm action plan, but we audit every year.”

Of particular interest to Wakely, who’s also Mars’ pet nutrition CMO, was addressing diversity in the company’s marketing. It is here, she said, where unintentional inferences or representations can creep into the messaging. “We’ve been working on showing inclusive representation but also removing unconscious biases in our advertising,” she explained.

To help address that issue, Mars has collaborated for the past two years with the Geena Davis Institute, a 16-year-old entertainment-industry nonprofit devoted to achieving balanced gender portrayals and eliminating harmful stereotypes. The trouble with unconscious biases, Wakely continued, is they are exactly that—they are unconscious—and the only way to truly stamp them out is to establish a workforce diverse enough to forestall any oversights before they make it into the marketing.

“As hard as I try,” she said, “the reality is to really address the systemic causes of discrimination, we need to work on the diversity of our talent pipelines. We’re making progress [on that front], but we need to do more.”

While many brands find themselves addressing challenges like these in the wake of the civil unrest that’s arisen both domestically and worldwide in recent weeks, Wakely said issues like diversity are part of what Mars regards as its brand purpose, which is not just an obligation but a contributor to competitive success. “There’s plenty of evidence to show that businesses that put purpose at heart can be a force in the world,” she said. “Putting purpose at the heart of Mars is not a new thing.”

On other fronts, Wakely discussed Mars’ ongoing efforts in pet care, where it is already an alpha dog. Not only does Mars own pet-food brands including Iams, Whiskas, Sheba and Pedigree, it has extensive holdings in veterinary practice, including Banfield Pet Hospital and VCA, which counts some 800 animal hospitals and 60 diagnostic labs in the U.S. and Canada. “When I first joined Mars 19 years ago, the business was pet food,” Wakely said. “But we now have the biggest pet healthcare brand in the world.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has been especially challenging for the pet industry, Wakely said, in part because the virus has thrown a wrench into adoption procedures. Among the measures Mars has put into place to address the issue is Dogs on Zoom. Launched under the Pedigree brand name, it’s a virtual adoption program by which prospective human companions can “meet” adoptable dogs across the country through their screens. Pedigree pays for the Zoom membership for the participating shelters and, if a match is made, the brand also covers the adoption fees. “We’ve piloted [the program] in the U.S., but it’s going global in the next few weeks,” Wakely said.

The CMO also spoke of the success of The Lion’s Share Fund, a Mars program launched two years ago with the United Nations Development Programme challenging all brands that use animals in their advertising to donate 0.5% of their media spend to support the U.N.’s efforts to protect habitats worldwide. Its goal is to raise $100 million by next year.

Overall, Wakely acknowledged that while these and other initiatives require effort and commitment to achieve, they are not a detriment to the bottom line. “Brands that are a force for good are also a force for growth,” she said. “Consumers want brands to take action on things. We talk about acts, not just ads. We want our brand to have a serious ecosystem of change behind them and make a meaningful difference.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.