Case study: Make Believe Works inspires innovation at Mars


The corporate world continuously pursues innovation. It is a means of survival in the constantly developing organizational landscapes as technology advances, generations change and businesses grow. Much of this can come from fostering a cultural change toward innovation. In this realm of ingenuity, collaboration stands as a cornerstone. Showcasing this effort together, Mars Incorporated’s user-centricity team and Makes Believe Works have pushed toward increasing the UC team’s capacity to spread a culture of innovation. 

Mars Incorporated: For the people and the pets

People may not know the Mars name, but everyone has seen its brands in stores and maybe have even purchased them. Mars creates items for people and pets through three subsections: Mars Food and Nutrition, Mars Snacking and Mars Petcare. 

Each has many brands and associates within it. Mars Food and Nutrition has names like Ben’s Original, Kevin’s Natural Foods and Kan Tong. Mars Snacking has classic snacks and candies such as M&Ms, Skittles, Milky Ways and, of course, the Mars bar. Mars Petcare serves pets through several services and brands like Pedigree, Mars Veterinary Health, Greenies and Whiskas.   

Mars is a family owned business that works toward having a lasting impact on the world. According to the UC team’s Global Senior Manager Reid Rousseau, its overall purpose is “the world we want tomorrow begins with how we do business today.”

Internally, Mars is committed to creating a beneficial and productive environment for their employees. Its business practices are guided by The Five Principles: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. Rousseau says his favorite part of it is the Associate Concept. “Within the Five Principles is the Associate Concept, which is about respecting and valuing our differences and ensuring that we all feel heard, appreciated and empowered,” Rousseau says. 

Rousseau is in charge of the UC team that worked with Make Believe Works to foster their culture of innovation. The UC team works globally “to drive a culture of user centric innovation and problem solving across all Mars segments,” Rousseau says. 

“Ours is about equipping Mars employees with the mindset and capabilities to be more user centric in whatever they’re doing, whether it’s internal business, problem-solving, operational efficiency work,” Rousseau says. “Largely, what we do is more on consumer-centric innovation. But, when we started, we took a broad view, because user centricity is widely applicable to what any team is working on, including internal digital and process optimization projects.” 

The UC team also focuses on being role models for innovative and successful teamwork for the rest of the company. Because of this, they decided to work with Make Believe Works to explore a new and better way of team building. 

Makes Believe Works: Workshopping and building teams 

Make Believe Works is a team-building company that works with other companies to foster a healthy and collaborative work culture. Co-Founder Ben Swire says the company has a multitude of in-person and remote unique workshops that are suited for groups of 10 to 1,000 people and fosters meaningful connection among coworkers. 

“We use creativity and play as a vehicle to help people shift into a mindset of curiosity and connection, practicing psychological safety and getting to know each other in a more authentic and human way,” Swire says. 

Make Believe Works has worked with companies such as Google, Meta and Netflix. The workshops are customized to the needs of each company depending on goals and values. Each activity session follows the same format: a facilitated introduction, a creative and playful activity, a share back about the experience and a debrief about takeaways.

To keep up with the changing workforce, Make Believe Works updates its library of activities regularly. It only provides activities that have received a 98 percent rating or better. The workshops have a range of activities such as drawing, dancing, sculpting, inkblot tests and more. 

Swire says their activities always begin from a place of fun and play, without worrying about perfectionism. “We really want people to return to that ‘macaroni necklace’ mindset of childhood,” he said in a follow-up email. “But that’s just one of the levels we design for. Ultimately, the creations serve as a catalyst to get people to open up and reveal some of what drives and fuels them. They may think they’re only talking about what they’ve made, but it’s designed so that what they’re really sharing are their priorities, their values, what’s important to them, what’s worth spending time on.”

Participating in these workshops can help teams bond at a deeper emotional level than common workplace interactions, Swire says. Testimonies from previous clients have said that it helps with “growing emotional intelligence,” “enriching collaboration,” “fueling individual growth,” “bridging silos” and more.

“The people who study joy and happiness for a living are constantly saying that the most important factor for both personal and professional happiness is meaningful connection with other people, but as everybody knows, just working with other people does not mean being connected to them, and certainly not in a meaningful way,” Swire says.

“But what we see with the groups we work with,” he added in a follow-up email, “is that the activities make it easy and safe to get vulnerable, let their guard down, let other people see the stories of their life and I think more importantly, let those people share their stories back with them and be seen by them, and those are the qualities you need to nourish meaningful connection and collaboration. They say employees come for the paycheck but stay for the people. So if you’ve got talent you want to hold on to, it’s important to help them bond and appreciate each other as people.”

Teamwork makes the dream work 

Make Believe Works and Mars completed many workshops together. When they first started working together in 2020, they held a two-day intensive workshop with 10 different activities. Over time, Make Believe Works and Mars have also stayed in contact and have hosted various virtual workshops. Rousseau remarks that the UC team has responded well to the activities.

“The workshops immediately let us break down barriers that we may have had in terms of sharing things, our personal life or just getting to know each other on different levels, but in a fun way,” Rousseau says. “Being a team that drives a creative innovation mindset, we needed a non-traditional team building approach to have the desired impact.”

While it is difficult to measure emotional engagement and cultural change, the UC team saw an 18.4 percent increase in engagement scores. The scores come from a Mars companywide associate survey that measures different metrics, questions and engagement. With more engagement, the UC team has been able to model and spread its culture of innovation. Swire says Mars’ commitment to culture and innovation is clearly having an impact. 

“In a time of quick quitting, quiet quitting, loud quitting and everybody quitting, Mars has retained an incredible amount of their talent, and it’s no coincidence that they have prized and prioritized internal culture,” says Swire.

For the future, the UC team will be taking the strategies they learned through Make Believe Works and sharing them with the rest of Mars. Rousseau says they will “show people what work can be like when you put empathy and personal connection and values first,” and that “when you see each other beyond professional roles, there will be an easier time collaborating and disagreeing productively.”
“The culture of innovation with a user-centric lens is key to building zero-distance relationships with those who we are trying to serve so that we can deeply understand and stay up with their needs and preferences in a rapidly changing world,” Rousseau says.

This article was updated Wednesday, January 3, 2024.


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