Life on Mars
The news, carried in most of the papers today, of the death of Forrest Mars Jnr, has transported me to another place and time.
Forrest, and his brother John, were joint scions of the world’s largest confectionery company, and were my very first employers. Not that they personally hired me. Well, no. I was a lowly graduate at Mars Incorporated, whilst they bestrode the world, reachable by a single, simple address: ‘the office of the president’.
I recall Forrest Mars, whose death occurred in Seattle at the age of 84, as a remote yet somehow down-home American, with a signature lack of interest in formal attire and a rather humble demeanour. He had, given his extraordinary wealth and power, little need for aggrandisement.
His senior managers of the time were, of course, hanging on his every word and desire, as Forrest’s decisions might plot the course of their careers. Being young and lowly, he had no power over me, which made me like him all the more.
In 1991, I was one of few native English speakers in Mars offices in Haguenau, close to Strasbourg, when Forrest came to visit. Indeed, I believe he took up residence there for some months, as he and his new wife were given to the wines, temperature and customs of the Alsace.
It must have been summertime, because the occasion I recall was his birthday. To mark Forrest’s 60th year, his European senior managers were assembling to give the big boss a birthday celebration.
Continental corporate types do not fully trust their ability to have fun without a script. When the big boss is about, one needs to orchestrate things.
It was decided that the occasion called for a rather innocent parody song that everyone could sing along to. A sort of tailor-made ‘happy birthday’, but to a different tune.
I was elected to rewrite the business’ signature song (The Candyman, used in M&M commercials to great effect) with words to mark the occasion.
I remember those lines to this day.
Not because they were supremely clever, but rather because they were so personal. Here I was, a kid who knew nothing, and my verse was being sung by all of the bigwigs of a major Corporation, and offered as a gift to its president.
There was a curious, exciting energy to Mars Incorporated in the early 90s. It was a business that was bent on inventing global brands, asserting a global vision for a confectionery category which had heretofore relied on cultural fiefdoms, with a sense of purpose and commitment which bespoke long-term ambition and a desire for excellence.
Forrest, with his siblings John and Jackie, and their kids, made this vision their lives’ work. In the doing, they exposed countless excitable graduate trainees like myself to the challenges of brand building, and schooled us in a robust and insightful approach to marketing. It is an approach that I draw on to this day.
Although I finally left their business in 1999, after 11 years, I care about it still. I can rarely enter a corner shop without looking at ‘our’ chocolate brands, to see how well we’re placed, how good the facings are, and how wide the distribution of the range might be.
In 1991, almost 25 year ago, I penned some breezy rhyme for Forrest Mars’ 60th birthday. With this addendum in prose, I respectfully mark his passing, and thank the family of associates at Mars who so shaped my professional values, and enriched my personal life.
(Words by Brian McIntyre; to the tune of The Candyman)
Who looks bright and breezy?
Pass for 50 easy
Here’s a toast to you
From your motley crew
You are Mr Fun, ‘cos Debbie keeps you young
Oh Happy birthday, Forrest, happy birthday
Surprise is in the the air let’s sing it everywhere. Bon anniversaire.
Who looks young and nifty?
Is he really sixty?
Loves la vie française
In Alsace he’s à l’aise
You’ve got it all in one, here’s to Forrest here’s to fun
Oh Happy birthday, Forrest, happy birthday!
Surprise is in the the air, let’s sing it everywhere. Bon anniversaire.