Architecting a Consumer Relationship


Anjali Subburaj, Digital Commerce Chief Architect at Mars, describes her leadership journey, and how manufacturers can have direct relationships with their consumers via technology.

Architecture and physics have a great deal in common. Both are about understanding and managing something physical. Anjali Subburaj, Digital Commerce Chief Architect at Mars, the foods manufacturer, has straddled both worlds, first as a Doctor of Physics at the renowned University of Mumbai, and today in her business technology leadership role at the Mars operation in the UK. This unique journey has included major roles at technology leaders Salesforce, as well as, Capita, and Capgemini, and has shaped her views on business technology, architecture, and leadership.

Mars, US-headquartered, is over 100 years old and continues to be family-owned; the business employs 130,000 associates, as it calls Subburaj and peers in technology, sales, marketing, business, and of course, manufacturing roles. The business operates in three main areas, Mars Petcare, Mars Wrigley, and Mars Foods, which includes brands such as Ben’s Original, Dolmio, and Edge, its entrance into the high growth area of nutrition. The business is, of course, famous for its chocolate bar of the same name, amongst many others.  

Architecture at Mars

“I am working on commerce and specifically commerce direct to the consumer,” she says, referring to how in today’s digital economy, manufacturers of confectionery and pet foods like Mars work closely with retailers, wholesalers, and now the pet owner or consumer of chocolate bars or pasta sauce. “The need for direct to consumer was known by the business before the pandemic and the movement towards a direct relationship had started, but what the pandemic showed was there is an urgent need for this model.” Direct to consumer is of growing importance to every type of manufacturer. Sportswear brand Nike, for example, recently told The Economist that direct-to-consumer now accounts for 40% of its revenues. Nike, like many organizations entering the direct-to-consumer sector, offers membership models to build a relationship with the consumer.

Although a direct relationship with the consumer is important, Subburaj reveals existing and traditional channels, such as retail, remain vital to the Mars business. “The revenue by the direct channel is not going to be comparable to the business-to-business channel, as these are multi-million-pound channels and direct will not be able to compete. Direct-to the-consumer is a holistic approach for direct engagement with the consumer and ensuring that the consumer is kept at the center of the business,” she says.  

"Direct-to-the-consumer is a holistic approach for direct engagement with the consumer and ensuring that the consumer is kept at the center of the business”

“So direct-to-the-consumer is a marketing and engagement channel. Consumer experience is key, and there is an opportunity to do targeted marketing and communication that can drive the up sales and cross-selling. As an architect, my role is focused both on the front-end technologies and the back-end systems. Both have to be extremely responsive, with a supply chain that has to be very agile. 

We are creating communications channels within the context of the brands, and our role as architects is putting all of this together. So, I am focusing on omnichannel retail and technologies like micro-services,” she says.  

Planning Business Modernization

Subburaj’s role is, therefore, a key pillar in the digital transformation of Mars. Many major organizations are looking to modernize their business operations both internally and externally to use the latest enterprise cloud computing technologies and applications to drive greater efficiency and improve the service they offer their customers. Mars and Subburaj have recognized that although the majority of the consumers will come via retail channels, the latest range of technologies enables a manufacturer to own part of the relationship with the consumer alongside the retailer. As an architect, Subburaj says it is vital that business modernization programs are data-led, and that the data informs the change in the culture of the business. “You are managing the old world along with the new world, and that is a huge challenge,” she says. Having worked on a number of business change programs, she says it is vital to get the data right early on in the project.

“Organizations fail in the discipline of data management because it is tedious and time-consuming,” she admits. “But data consolidation is an ongoing process, and it is not part of the digital transformation, but it has to become part of business routine,” she says of getting the data right, not only for a change program, but also the onwards operations of the business. “Data is not separate; it has to be built into what I do. Therefore, I am not a fan of building specialist data teams as they become a silo,” she says of the importance of developing an enterprise-wide data culture. “I recognize that you need specialist skills,” she adds, conceding the necessity of mixing expertise in data management and analysis with a high level of data skills across the whole business.  

Subburaj moved into architecture in 2013, as Senior Solution Architect with business services organization Capgemini, and has since held major architecture roles at Salesforce and now Mars. Before becoming an architect, Subburaj held roles in software development, project management, technical team leader, and consulting. 

Architecture roles in enterprise IT are undergoing a high level of change and debate, as organizations move to Agile and DevOps methods and, therefore, continuous delivery. But Subburaj sees the architect role as a key part of business technology leadership. “Architects are much more strategic and support CIOs and CTOs with the strategy and the scope of change and the pace of that change.” 

Her diverse career has given Subburaj some valuable leadership lessons. “Always filter through negative feedback and think of it as a learning, but don’t let it affect your self-confidence,” she says. Going on to reveal: “I am an idealist and always in the pursuit of excellence from myself and others, but I always have to be objective, and that creates trust and integrity.” Architects have been criticized in some quarters of business technology leadership for excessive perfection. Subburaj demonstrates, however, that with strong self analysis this can be used to extract the best possible results even while remaining realistic. 

This is achieved, she says, through continuous education and understanding that your career is a journey, not a destination. 

“Data consolidation is an ongoing process, and it is not part of the digital transformation, but it has to become part of business routine”

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