Courageous conversations: infusing technology with human intelligence at Mars
Market Logic Team
This year’s QUAL360 presentation with Brienne (Breezy) Coates from Mars was particularly poignant and timely. When we presented together at ESOMAR in April of this year, the pandemic had just kicked off.
Teams around the world were learning to adjust to working from home, staying in touch, and democratizing information. Four months on, the world, and particularly the United States, finds itself at another cultural tipping point: racial inequality and the ensuing protests.
“The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today.” So goes the vision at Mars, where marketing leadership has recognized that building their brands can make a difference in the world – and likewise, making a difference can build their brands.
What does that mean in practice, and how can Mars truly put those values into action? How can they make the marketing of their brands is as diverse as the world they’re enjoyed in?
One important first step is to have Courageous Conversations. In June of this year, Breezy told her team an anecdote about how racial biases impacted her loved one. Based on the discussions and stories that followed, Mars has embarked on a journey to enable conversations within the insights community on diversity and inclusion.
While most of the initial talks were analog, especially with leadership, it became imperative to include technology on two main fronts: to enable anonymous safe spaces for courageous conversations to take place, and to collate resources for further discussion.
It’s important, I noted, to use technology as a springboard for these discussions, and not to lose sight of the importance of empathic human contributions. Technology, after all, is built by and modeled after human language and behaviors – warts and all.
I recalled Microsoft’s AI chatter bot Tay, who was taken down after only 16 hours of interactions on Twitter. Tay was meant to mimic a 19-year-old American girl, but started earnestly repeating and repurposing some of the racist, misogynistic and prejudiced vitriol she “heard” online.
After buy-in from the Mars leadership and a series of corporate town halls, Mars has started using their market insights platform, Synapse, to bring stories around Courageous Conversations to life. Many topics of discussion revolve around language and how it’s used – for example, what is a “Karen”? And why are research subjects asked to provide their race?
Through a curated homepage channel with newsfeeds to a Courageous Conversations dashboard and a Diversity and Inclusion Knowledge Zone, these important topics are integrated into the insights landscape.
Breezy noted that the external diversity facilitator hired to get to the heart of the matter was impressed by how readily available Mars had made resources and the conversational interface. And as conversations evolve and extend to other topics like democracy, so too will the content on the platform.
Concluding the presentation, Breezy reiterated the need for respectful rhetoric around these difficult topics. At the same time, it’s not enough to pay lip service to racial injustice or quietly take Uncle Ben’s rice boxes off the shelf – instead, we need to have honest and courageous conversations in order to shape the brand.