Diversity as competitive advantage, Mars success story


"We looked at how to hire staff in countries we had never been before. We looked at legal risks, we looked at compliance, we looked at supply chain risks, and so on and so on. But we found that, as much as we were successful, we couldn’t break through,” Bas Bredenoord says. He’s speaking to an attentive crowd of more than two hundred people at The Culture Factor 2019 Conference. Last year the annual conference, organised by Hofstede Insights (now The Culture Factor Group), took place in a prestigious hall at Chambre de Commerce du Luxembourg. “And the one thing we forgot was that there was culture at play,” he concludes the dilemma. The dilemma they would later address, learn from, and even successfully take advantage of, but that would require a coordinated effort from the whole team.

Bas at the time was the HR Director at Mars International Travel Retail, which – as he puts it - “You could call it a start-up, in the bigger Mars.” That bigger Mars he refers to is the one that everyone has heard of. It is a family-owned business that has been around for more than 100 years. A company that employs more than 125 000 people, operates in over 80 countries and has net sales worth of $35B or more. Running a number of billion dollar brands such as Snickers, M&Ms, Twix, Whiskas and Pedigree, Mars consists of four “sub-brands”: Mars Petcare, Mars Wrigley, Mars Food and Mars Edge.

Operating under Mars Wrigley, Mars International Travel Retail works in duty-free retail environments, “Creating better moments for travellers all around the world.” In practice this means supplying about 5000 stores, in 800 international airports, with Mars products. Bas heavily emphasises, their “Number 1 opportunity is to think global.” But Bas felt they weren’t quite getting there.

The problem wasn’t lack of resources or inability to think globally. Quite the contrary, you will soon find out that the state of affairs was in fact quite good. The problem was that at this stage Bas and his team had not taken the role of culture into account. In fact, as Bas concludes in his introduction, culture "was actually the most important thing we forgot [when] building this business. And I think that’s where our journey starts. And, also, the partnership with Hofstede Insights (now The Culture Factor Group)."




As mentioned earlier, the conditions for beginning to think truly globally were already very good. If there is one thing that benefits global thinking, it is diversity, and Mars International Travel Retail is a diverse group of people. Roughly 60 people from 18 different nationalities, speaking a total of 25 languages. Gender representation is roughly equal and people are spread across 10 different locations, delivering products to 80 countries.

But, as it is pretty much always the case, the benefits of cultural diversity don’t just appear without guidance, even in the most well-meaning organisations. With a slight chuckle, Bas shares a story about their Dutch team trying to workshop with their international colleagues, only to have the whole meeting cancelled, with an assertive, “We need these experts in the room, we’re not just going to look at a problem and share some thoughts. That’s not gonna work.”

While working together in an multicultural environment is indeed a great way to raise your cultural awareness, it is in no way an automated road to cultural understanding.

“We were celebrating our diversity, the national holidays of our associates, bringing the little cultural nudges in for people to understand and just to have a bit of fun. But at some point we also realised that we did not leverage the diversity,” Bas explains, emphasising the last point and then rephrasing it, “so we didn’t manage to include the diversity of thought.”

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But let’s take a step back and look at how Bas, and Mars International Travel Retail, got to this eventual realisation. It all started from a simple wish and a question. They already knew they had a diverse group of people and then simply asked themselves how would it be possible to make their diversity their competitive advantage? “A big question for us at the time because we really didn’t know where to begin.”



Bas and his team began by focusing on their current reality. “We first looked at how diverse are we really, as an internal organisation, and in our external context. We explored what our real pain-points are, because we wanted to tip from a really good business to a great business, and to understand what it would take to actually do so,” Bas explains. “But also [we wanted to understand] what is the role that Organisational Culture plays in all of this. What are the components that help us and what are the components against it?” Bas describes the points they wanted to focus on.

This is where the team began to realise they were not really living up to their full potential. Another pain-point established was their challenges with customer collaboration – of which we can see a great example of with the Dutch team trying to workshop with the international colleagues presented earlier.

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The strong Organisational Culture of Mars was of great help in the process. As Bas mentions, “Having a strong company culture – and I think we can say that Mars has a very strong company culture – actually is a fantastic platform to start going into the cultural scene.” However, taking full advantage of strong Organisational Culture can be difficult without external help (read more here). So, together with Hofstede Insights (now The Culture Factor Group), Mars conducted an Organisational Culture Scan in order to find out how the Mars culture could support their cultural transformation project.

The obstacles that the team faced were largely questions connected to the logistics and the size of the overhaul. Can you just run cultural trainings in all the locations and be done with it or do you need something more thorough? We’ve discussed the problems of trying to solve your challenges with a single workshop in one of our earlier articles. The Mars view was very similar to our conclusion: you cannot conduct a complete cultural transformation simply by walking to a workshop and learning about culture.



Now that Bas and the team had a better understanding of their current reality, it was time to start looking ahead. What could the future look like? Envisioning that began by bringing all the associates - as Mars calls their employees - together for a training that worked as an introduction to the project at hand. This session was also a way to see if people were on board with the vision, “To see what energy was there. And it was a massive success. People loved it and at some point they all opened up to something they never knew really existed. But was definitely there,” Bas explains the feelings of the associates.

That “something”, of course, was the role of culture.

While things were becoming clearer, Bas still felt he needed to dive deeper in the role of culture, and to find more concrete ways to take it into consideration and to manage it. This is why Bas contacted Hofstede Insights (now The Culture Factor Group) and joined the Certification programme in Intercultural Management. He did this, “Just to understand what was out there, what are the tools, what is the knowledge, what are the case studies, how does this work, because we had no clue of how to do it at that time.”

After the course Bas, together with a few consultants, collaborated to create a so-called “napkin pitch”. A short pitch of what the future could look like if Mars could successfully use their diversity as a strength.




The next step was to start working together and to begin designing solutions. The result of this was the creation of the Mars Cultural Ambassador program.

For this, what Bas and his team did was recruit a group of ten associates, already part of the 60-people Mars International Travel Retail team, from different locations and nationalities. These ten people first participated in a training session where they went through a lot of the knowledge, exercises and case studies Bas had familiarised himself with during the Intercultural Management Certification programme. After this introduction, the group then started actually designing the Cultural Ambassador program for the Mars group. “We worked on the knowledge to get them up to speed, they did a lot of exercises. And then on the second day, they started to design what the Cultural Ambassador program could look like. What were the things they wanted to take back and improve,” Bas says.

What did the Cultural Ambassador program look like? It was a neat combination of Ambassador duties and practical approaches. The ten people designing the program were tasked to bring the solutions into practice and also identify their own roles in more detail. At first, they decided to focus on three very practical problems at first: how to run effective meetings, how to give and receive feedback, and how to be more effective with clients. In addition, it was decided that part of the Ambassadorial duties would be to identify other cross-cultural challenges the company might be facing and to see the opportunities cultural diversity might offer.



”Once we designed the program, we had a launch plan available, we were ready to go,” Bas says. What Mars wanted was not just to have people participate in a workshop about culture and be done with the issue. The goal was to create a lasting change.

To ensure this change is constantly kept in mind, Bas and his team developed a cultural onboarding training for all associates that would join the business. Using the Culture Compass allowed them to dive deeper into culture on a more personal level, “Just to give that little bit of inside on ‘Hmm, who am I?’ from a cultural standpoint, ‘How do I compare?’ and to help and allow us to actually go closer into ‘How do I operate in a cross-cultural context?’” Bas says.

Of course, trainings were used as well but, instead of one-off workshops, they were designed specifically so that there would also be a follow-up refresher. As Bas puts it, “Because you can’t just do it once, you got to keep refreshing.”

And, finally, they did bias trainings to raise awareness on those unconscious biases everyone has. “It is quite important that you leave your bias at the door. Which is impossible, we all are loaded with judgements, but still making the unconscious conscious is another thing that we did,” Bas says.

Bas and the Cultural Ambassadors also looked at some of their cultural challenges via internal consulting. As one of the focus points had been effective meetings, they went beyond mere workshops and actually started preparing for meetings from a cultural point of view. Here one of the key revelations was to focus on the similarities, not the differences. They would look at the goal of the meeting, the nationalities and the titles of the participants. Then the team would identify the common factors between the participants and begin building on that. They also developed a very practical step by step approach for any cultural challenges they might face:

  1. Is there a national culture in play here?
  2. Hold your judgement.
  3. Go into the science. Use the tools available to you and develop a strategy to approach the challenge.

“Do it, enjoy it,” Bas begins, failing to hide his smile, “have a laugh... and try again,” he continues. “That’s simply the loop. Because you can’t get this straight in one go,” Bas summarises, emphasising every word of his last sentence with a small motion with his hand.

From a communication point of view, the project was a success. Advances in the project were constantly communicated, tools and case studies were made available not only for the internal team of 60 people but all of Mars. “We actually started to integrate the cross-cultural work that we were doing, the cultural muscle that we were building, into our internal employer brand,” Bas says.


Looking back

Is there anything Bas would do differently? Of course, and we’re lucky enough to learn from his experience already. One of Bas’s regrets is to focus on the pain-points too much in the beginning of the process because, despite the positive energy, there were some doubts about the practicality of the results. “There was this phase where we were a little bit like ‘will this work?’ So we forgot to get the early wins that were really visible, really tangible. And I think looking back, if I would do it all over again, we would go there first,” Bas recollects. “To create a bit of evidence that it’s not just the energy and the belief that we had but also make it real and contributing to our business.”

It was later in the process, when people began to apply their new skills more actively in their daily business, that things started to change more visibly. “‘The penny dropped,’ as one of our sales managers said.” Bas says, again with a smile. “When he actually started to engage in a different way with his customers, different types of meetings, all of a sudden he learned that there was something, that he felt he couldn’t articulate yet at that point, would give him a competitive advantage over other players in the business. They were not aware,” Bas begins but corrects his words with enthusiasm, “[They] are not aware. As we found from our customer interactions.”

Being the HR - or People and Organisation, as Mars calls it - Director it is no surprise that Bas sounds genuinely proud of how the people responded to the programme. “People started to say: ‘I want to work for international travel retail because that’s the place where I can learn how to lead and run a global business,’” Bas says. “And I think by now - and it is difficult to measure that internally - this quote from an applicant says a lot. So they want to be with us because there’s something special. So it did something that we didn’t expect.”

“The second thing, what I’m even happier about, is that we’ve driven the levels of inclusion in our company,” Bas says. Even if Mars was always a diverse and a respectful company, Bas feels they now have a much better understanding of each other. And, if one of the goals was to make that diversity their competitive advantage, they already managed to take different perspectives and insights into account. “We managed to use the different intellectual insights, different perspectives, on a daily basis. Does it always work? No. But, then again, we are so much better. And I think that’s the other learning, step by step we are better today than we were yesterday.”

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in September 2020, and last updated in October 2023.

Watch the speech below: