Connected & Ready

How Mars keeps people at the center of digital transformation, with Carol Van Den Hende

Episode Summary

For companies like Mars, it’s vital never to lose sight of the human side of its business. And that human side refers to its employees just as much as its customers. That means ensuring its digital transformation initiatives measure up to its company values and help strengthen its human-centered culture. In this episode of Connected & Ready, host Gemma Milne talks with Carol Van Den Hende, Senior Digital Transformation Director at Mars, about how her area of expertise has changed over the years, some pivotal moments for Mars in its transformation journey, and the impact of that journey on the customer and employee experience. Dynamics 365 is helping businesses of all sizes unify their data and create a digital-first culture. With next generation ERP and CRM business applications, employees at every level can reason over data, predict trends, and make proactive, more-informed decisions. Request a live demo of Dynamics 365 today: Thank you for listening to Connected & Ready! Do you have ideas of how we can improve the show? Want to recommend a guest for us to interview? We value your partnership and participation. Please drop us a note at We would love to hear from you.

Episode Notes

Gemma Milne talks with Carol Van Den Hende, Senior Digital Transformation Director at Mars, Inc., about how digital transformation at the company is helping reshape the customer and employee experience, and how to maintain a human-centered culture in a technology-fueled world. 

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About Carol Van Den Hende:

Carol Van Den Hende is a Senior Digital Transformation Director at Mars, Inc., with more than 20 years of experience in marketing, strategy, and insights. She earned her MBA from Lehigh University and is also an author, speaker, board member, and mom of twins.

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Episode Transcription

Gemma [00:00:06] Hello and welcome. You're listening to Connected and Ready - an ongoing conversation about innovation, resilience, and our capacity to succeed, brought to you by Microsoft. I'm Gemma Milne. I'm a technology journalist and author, and I'm going to be exploring trends around how companies are adapting to a disrupted world and preparing for tomorrow. We're going to speak to the innovators who are bringing products, operations, and people together in new ways. In today's episode, I’m chatting with Carol Van Den Hende, a strategist, award-winning author, and senior digital transformation director at Mars. We chat about the digital transformation journey, how it's accelerated growth, profitability, speed, resiliency and sustainability, and most importantly, how Mars builds and develops trust with its customers. 

Gemma [00:00:56] Carol, thank you so much for coming and joining us on the show. Let's start with a little bit of an introduction from yourself. Tell us a little bit about you and your role. 

Carol [00:01:03] Thanks so much for the warm welcome, Gemma. I'm Carol Van Den Hende, senior director for Digital Transformation for Mars Incorporated, and I've had an interesting background at Mars. I've actually had three careers at Mars. One in digital technologies, a second in marketing, and the third leg of my career has been in strategy and insights. And actually, what's lovely about the roles that I'm holding as user centricity head and digital transformation senior director is that I can bring all of those aspects to bear. And then also interestingly, outside of work, I'm an author and a speaker, and I'm a mom of twins. 

Gemma [00:01:39] So, Mars is obviously a really well-known brand, but tell us a little bit more about the company as a whole. 

Carol [00:01:45] Mars is truly an incredible organization, so such an impressive $40 billion dollar, 130,000 person organization that is quite famous for its confectionery brands. So a lot of times people will think about Mars Bar and M&Ms and Snickers and also you know, Altoids and Five Gum and all that. However, what people don't always realize is that Mars is also the world's largest pet care company with incredible pet nutrition brands like IAMs and Nutro and Royal Canin and Pedigree and Sheba and Temptations. And then beyond that, there's a food business. We have Ben's Original and truly incredibly, we're not just a consumer packaged goods organization, but also a services business in which we have vet health organizations like VCA and Banfield and Blue Pearl. And I think one of the things that really characterizes Mars beyond the diversity of categories in which the company plays, is also the extent to which it's truly values driven. So it's a family owned organization that thinks not just in years, but in generations, really. And so the fact that it's such a principles-led organization is what's helped me to want to stay there for all these decades. 

Gemma [00:03:00] Time is an interesting place to kick off our next question then, and also values, right? Because we're living in a really interesting time at the moment, particularly when we think about digital transformation, what's been happening through the lens of COVID and the pandemic. It's obviously not a new concept for businesses - digital transformation, but I do think there's obviously been a lot of pivoting, realigning of priorities and so on and so forth over the last and what's been well over a year now. Could you tell us a bit about Mars's digital transformation landscape as it looks today and tell us a bit about how business today is different from, say, two years ago? 

Carol [00:03:35] It's such an interesting question, because actually our digital transformation at Mars has been going on longer than COVID. If we think four years back, actually, there were some really substantial investments in focus on digital transformation, even starting as far back as four years ago. But you're right, what COVID has done, as it has for many organizations, is really amplified that focus and really focused the pivot into certain areas. And so our digital transformation covers everything from core technology to our digital capabilities. And then the ability to apply those to business programs and models. And I can give you a few examples of how because of COVID, how the speed has really increased and ways in which we've been able to apply digital transformation that was already underway to new and really important use cases. So for instance, when COVID hit and we weren't able to have people travel for business, weren't able to have people go into plants for sometimes maintenance and things that need to be done, we were able to leverage augmented reality, or AR technology, to have experts be able to guide people who were actually physically in the plants to do the work that was needed. And another great example of this that's very consumer facing is the work we did on Royal Canin, we found in certain markets that consumers were so reliant on having Royal Canin food for their pets, weren't able to get the food from their normal sources because, of course, supply chains had been disrupted. And so we were able to accelerate the work on direct to consumer, or D to C, to be able to get Royal Canin up and running and be able to supply consumers the food they absolutely needed for their pets in a D to C way. 

Gemma [00:05:21] Tell us a little bit then about, as you say, the digital transformation journey has started before the pandemic, but what sort of changed or shifted in order to, I guess, make that happen? You said it was about focusing the pivot, you know was that, I guess from the top, a different focus, or was it a way of working that changed? Or was it a kind of everybody coming together and it was a cultural change? Like what do you think shifted two years ago? 

Carol [00:05:55] You know, I think we all live through this together, which is the entire world changed and our assumptions about what was available changed and the need, actually, because we're such a purpose driven company, we're really focused on how do we support and supply our customers and our consumers and make sure these brands that are such a big part of their lives can still be available? When COVID first hit, the focuses were very clear because the company is very values driven. First of all, associate safety was incredibly important. And so the decision to have people who were able to work from home work from home was something that was taken right away. Then, you know, thinking about ways to support the community. And so Mars gave back within the communities in which we operate and we serve in really substantial ways. And then finding ways to really, as you're asking, use digital to be able to help our own business run better so that we can serve those customers and consumers was absolutely a big part of that pivot. 

Gemma [00:06:47] That brings me nicely into asking you about the second part of your role that you mentioned earlier. We've mentioned the digital transformation part, but you also said that you, you focus on user centricity. Let's dive a little bit into that. What is it and how does it impact day to day business functions? 

Carol [00:07:03] User centricity is such an interesting area, and I've been incredibly fortunate to be leading that team currently. It's actually a team that uses design thinking and embeds that into the organization to really work on some of the most ambiguous issues around the enterprise. And so it helps to really frame what is the right question. It helps to broaden the thinking before narrowing in order to identify solutions that we can iterate against pilot test and learn, and also to ensure that we're keeping the voice of the consumer at the center, that we're talking to consumers and really hearing directly from who we call our boss, the consumer. And it's such an interesting area because in addition to the design thinking element, there's also a focus on how UI and UX can support that. There's, just it's such an incredible team doing really incredible work. I can actually give a couple of examples if that's helpful. Maybe I'll share one internal example and one external example, which I love. So the internal example is that our user centricity team has worked with our Mars Retail Group. Mars Retail Group is responsible for the physical stores that we have around the world. In fact, we just opened a new M&M store in Berlin. And user centricity was part of thinking with the M&Ms Berlin team. How do we ensure that the consumer experience, the shopper experience, is as customer centric as we can make it, as user centric as we can make it, including integrating digital, right, into the experience - given how digital is a part of all of our lives now in such a fundamental way. Part of what's been lovely about working with Mars Retail Group is it's been a long standing relationship and actually we've had the good fortune to work on other Mars stores too, beyond the Berlin one that's opened so recently, and the user centric approach can actually help with everything from navigation through the store, how the shopper experiences the welcome at the entry and moves through the store, sees the merchandise, sees the confection products that are in there and really to even weave in a digital aspect to that. Are there places in the store that are Instagrammable, that create a photo opportunity, can be really fun things that user centricity can add. And then the second example, the external example that I absolutely love, and I think it's a famous example so maybe you would have heard of it, Gemma, or maybe some of your listeners would have heard of it, is work that was done years ago when there were medical professionals realizing that when children were getting MRIs, magnetic resourcing images, that they were so scared and so nervous to go into the MRI machine, which of course, is really loud and has all that banging, that the children oftentimes almost all the time needed to undergo general anesthesia, actually be put to sleep to have an MRI. And that's really quite hard on those little bodies. And so using user centricity or using design thinking, actually the team was able to realize that they could come at it from a totally different perspective if they thought about the experience of going into an MRI machine from a children's perspective. They realized that they could actually make the experience an adventure and make it fun. They ended up designing and painting the MRI machines to create these different scenes. For instance, there was one scene where the MRI machine is essentially a pirate ship, and they had the nurses and the technicians dress up in costume. They had the children come and be dressed in costume so that they weren't undergoing some scary medical procedure. They were actually having an experience and a fun time. And the researcher who did this work and completely rethought how MRI machines and that experience could be for kids was actually brought to tears when one little girl, after she had had the experience in the pirate designed MRI machine. At the end of the experience, she hopped off the little examination table and she said, "Oh Mommy, Mommy, can we please do this again tomorrow?"

Gemma [00:11:20] That's amazing. I really love that example, and I think it is really about, I guess, focusing in on the power of doing it well, that highlights why people should be investing and thinking about using these kind of methods and ideas in terms of their strategy. You know, I hear you have this human centric culture and you know, you have a digital vision to go 100 times faster. So I wonder if you could tell us about how Mars is progressing towards this vision. You know, the approach to transformation that you have with respect to getting it to trickle through the business and really work across this massive scale that you have.

Carol [00:11:57] You're so right about pointing out the human centric culture. I think that's absolutely a big part of it because when we talk about digital transformation, it doesn't have to start with technology first. Actually, it should start with people first, with that human centricity, with the user centricity. And so it really is about building digital capabilities in order to leverage all of the core technology that we're putting into place in order to really drive our business programs and models. And so our approach to transformation, actually, we have a couple of ways we talk about it. One of which might be interesting to you. We actually talk about our digital engine and this is really tied in with the conversation we were just having with user centricity because user centricity is at the start of that digital engine, ensuring that we are framing the right problems that we're hearing and identifying the emerging and weak signals that we can then take the next part of the digital engine to really understand those more in a quantitative way. So data and analytics and things like social listening can help us then take those early hypotheses we're identifying with user centricity and find out quantitatively how true are those things and then identify pilots we can do, tests we can undertake. And then ultimately, once we found these solutions that are working, then we can go into the third part of the engine, which allows us to scale the solutions and really embed the solutions into the organization. That could be through RPA or robotics process automation. It could be through many of our digital tools that we have, 

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Gemma [00:14:06] You know, from my own experience, working in a large corporate and I worked in a group company that had 10 companies underneath it. And I worked in a central role where we sort of served all the different parts of the company as one department, as an innovation department that I worked in. But one of the challenges that we had was we were lucky that we got to try all these new methods. We had all these strategies. We got to kind of see what was what in terms of what was emerging, what was new. But sometimes it would be challenging to start thinking about things like new technologies, like new ways of working. So I'm curious about how these strategies and ideas trickle through Mars. 

Carol [00:14:46] I think that perhaps you're asking about the area of what we call change management. The fact is, people are on different places in the adoption curve when it comes to digital and transformation. And I think it's a series of things. One is just really close collaboration with our businesses and with the people who are right at the heart of the business, who are running operations, who are running the brands. That incredibly close collaboration absolutely is important. And we actually also quite explicitly acknowledge change management. And so when we talk about digital capabilities, we think about three pillars. One is we've really been focused on the data aspect and how data is the new oil or actually fuels so much of our understanding of the business and how to improve performance. The second is around analytics and putting that analytics power in the hands of exactly who you're talking about, Gemma, the people who are running the business so that they can have that power at their fingertips and really drive much stronger decision making. And then the third pillar is truly actually change capability. So the way in which we think about helping everyone along that change curve and user centricity is actually part of that change capability because as people start to understand the power of design thinking, of framing the right problems and new tools to use to solve them, actually, it's making them smarter along their own digital journey. And so I say it's a combination of all of those things. 

Gemma [00:16:18] Amazing. Let's talk a little bit about, I guess, the impacts of digital transformation on customer experience, right? Because at the end of the day, I guess that's, that's really what you're, what you're aiming for. How does the digital transformation journey at Mars as a whole then, trickle through and impact the customer? I wonder if you could give us some examples, perhaps that really highlight what's been happening. 

Carol [00:16:40] So a great example is the work that we're doing in ensuring that consumers that are having either a direct to consumer or an online shopping experience are having the best experience they can possibly have. So we have a digital asset transformation is one of our transformation programs in which ensuring just simply the quality of the information such as, you know, what's the pack size and what's the ounce weight or what's the right image to go with a product that's available online, ensuring the quality of that is part of ensuring a really good experience for the shopper that's online. And then the move to increased direct to consumer is really to help them be able to get the brands and products that they want if they can't find them at retail. And of course, we're always incredibly partnering with our retail partners to ensure that, you know, the quality of information to drive decision making is as high as possible for retailers as well. 

Gemma [00:17:36] I wonder if you could also touch then a little bit on how the, you know, going back to this kind of values-led approach and whatnot impacts how Mars thinks about employee experience. Because you mentioned earlier on, you know, it's not just about the technology, right? It's great if technology can help achieve a vision and can help accelerate a vision for the future, whether it's to do with the environment or employee experience or customer experience and so on and so forth. So you know what's I guess Mars's vision there when it's thinking about enhancing the workplace and what it means to kind of go to work and do work in 2021? 

Carol [00:18:11] We actually have a concept called the associate concept that the associate is at the center of our organization and we don't actually use the phrase employee. We do say associate. The associate concept says the associate's at the center of the organization and is you know, that important. And so we are working on things like how do we streamline the processes associates need to go through to run the business and thinking about those processes end to end to really make them better, make them easier to navigate. Even things like I've actually been hiring people for the teams that I'm running. And so even things like interviewing talent, meeting new candidates, taking them through the process. Improving all of that is part of the remit. 

Gemma [00:18:56] Amazing. Believe it or not, we're actually coming to near the end of our episode. So let's look to the future to kind of finish off what would a technology fueled future look like for Mars? 

Carol [00:19:06] I love the way you phrased that, that it's technology fueled because earlier we talked about digital transformation doesn't mean technology first. That really, given that Mars is such a human centered company, it is people first, associates first, business problems first and purpose first. And so I do see us moving from, you know, we've actually been really on this digital transformation journey, empowering and enabling associates to create value faster. But ultimately, we could see becoming much more digital in everything we do. And we've been building these digital skills and capabilities within our associates. Sometimes we talk about armoring them in some ways it's building a digital armor to help our associates to create value faster, to be better at what they're doing and to deliver more value so that we can really fuel what we call our entire compass. That as we drive quality growth, we're actually able to fuel more positive societal impact and trust and reputation. 

Gemma [00:20:07] Amazing Carol, I think that's a really lovely note to end on, and I like that, you know, we've kept coming back in this conversation to this, I guess this point around what actually is value. I think sometimes when we're talking about technology and business, we can get so caught up in this idea of growth and profit and, you know, doing more by - through use of technology. And it's refreshing and great to hear from somebody who's at that sort of strategy level in such a large company to be going, actually, you know, technology is obviously super important it helps enable us - but really, we have to first really grasp what value means to us before we start taking any action. So, Carol thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing with us your wisdom, your insights, and some great examples. 

Carol [00:20:48] It's been great. Thanks so much, Gemma. 

Gemma [00:20:53] That's it for this week. Thank you so much for tuning in. You can find out more about Carol's work and indeed, some of the broader themes we discussed today in the show notes. If you enjoyed the episode, please do take a few moments to rate and review the podcast. It really helps other people discover the show. And don't forget to hit subscribe, and tune in next time to continue our conversation about innovation, resilience, and our capacity to succeed. 

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