For decades M&M’s conjured memories of focus groups for me.
During my years in consumer insights departments (aka marketing research) for Veryfine Products and Dunkin’, I sat behind the mirror watching customers react to new product ideas, ad campaigns, and new store designs.
To welcome clients, focus group facilities stocked the back rooms with an array of soft drinks and snacks.
A bowl of M&M’s was de rigueur. Sometimes multiple bowls, both plain and peanut flavors.
It’s easy to lose track of how many you nibble during a two-hour session.
But your scale knows.
I quickly learned to stake out my seat and move those bowls as far away as possible.
I hadn’t given M&M’s much thought until my friend Mark Schaefer asked me to provide a brand perspective on their recent hullabaloo in an interview for his online community.
After watching M&M’s marquee 2023 Superbowl commercial, my friends Dominic and David insisted I write about the trainwreck.
Who am I to deny a request?
Okay folks, as Maria sings in The Sound of Music, let’s start at the very beginning.
M&M’s Original Ability to Stand the Heat
M&M’s launched in 1941 as military rations. Their hard candy shell enabled soldiers to carry chocolate in warm weather.
Ask anyone over age 40 about M&M’s and we’ll tell you they “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”
M&M’s adopted that tagline in 1954, likely inspired by the military purpose. Commercials showed mothers happier with M&M’s because they did not cause the mess of other chocolate candies.
Were civilians worried about messy chocolates? Who knows?
The tagline’s claim became both brand differentiator and purpose.
Let the Candy Do the Talking
M&M’s introduced their spokescandies, red and yellow cartoon characters, in 1960.
By 1999, there were 5 computer-generated figures: red, yellow, orange, blue, and green. Each had a distinct personality.
Red was bossy.
Yellow was a peanut M&M and portrayed as dim-witted.
Orange was anxious.
Blue was confident.
Green was the only female in the group. She was a diva, depicted as “sexy,” and sported go-go boots.
Original Tagline Melts Away, Sparking Identity Crisis
The last use of the tagline I can find is this 1997 ad with the spokescandies as guests on Dennis Miller’s talk show.
Forty-three years with one tagline. Impressive.
In 1998, M&M’s marketing team must have decided people no longer worried about chocolate melting in their hands.
Just like that, the tagline melted away, taking the product’s differentiation and purpose with it.
A close look at M&M’s ad campaigns over the next 20 years shows a brand having an identity crisis.
1998: “Official candy of the new millennium.” MM are the roman numerals for 2000. Get it?
2001: “What is it about the green ones?”
2002: Contest to choose a new color to add to M&M’s bags – purple won.
2004: “Chocolate is better in color.”
2007: “There’s an m in everyone.”
2011: “Can’t resist m.”
2012: Ms. Brown introduced during Superbowl 2012 as “Not your average chocolate.” Ms. Brown was confident, strode in stilettos, and wore smart eyeglass frames.
2017: Clean energy promotion
2018: “Always fun.”
M&M’s Attempt a New Identity
As I mention in my book, Teenage Wastebrand, brand identity is a combination of purpose and attributes.
On January 21, 2022, M&M’s announced their mission (aka purpose) “M&M’S® promises to use the power of fun to include everyone with a goal of increasing the sense of belonging for 10 million people around the world by 2025.”
This new purpose set them up with two obvious brand attributes: fun and inclusive.
M&M’s implemented several initiatives:
- Projekt Open Mic to make the German comedy scene more inclusive.
- The M&Ms FUNd Advisory Council to help them stay true to their mission, with input from inclusion experts Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Global Belonging Collaborative, DisabilityIN, Coqual, and PolicyLink.
- $10,000 grants to 10 women trailblazers, planning to announce the winners on International Women’s Day (March 8).
Spokescandy Tinkering Stokes Controversy
M&M’s also tweaked some spokescandies in January 2022, seemingly in support of their mission.
Red became nicer.
Orange embraced his true self, worries and all.
Ms. Brown lost the Ms. and traded her stilettos for pumps.
Green swapped her go-go boots for sneakers.
Changes to the female characters, Brown and Green, caught conservative commentator Tucker Carlson’s ire.
“M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous,” Carlson said. “Until the moment when you wouldn’t want to have a drink with any one of them. That’s the goal. When you’re totally turned off, we’ve achieved equity. They’ve won.”
In September 2022, M&M’s introduced Purple spokescandy, a female, peanut M&M designed “to represent acceptance and inclusivity.”
When a limited-edition pack came out in January 2023 featuring only the female characters and supporting “women out to flip the status quo,” Carlson chimed in again.
He called Purple “an obese and distinctively frumpy M&M” and chided Orange for “becoming a poster boy for the mental-health crisis.”
PR Gets Hot, M&M’s Melt
It’s no mistake that the mission announcement and the limited-edition women’s initiative pack both came in January.
M&M’s are a long-time Superbowl advertiser. Generating buzz around the brand prior to the game helps them get publicity and more mileage from their Superbowl ad spend.
Both the spokescandy changes and Carlson’s outbursts stoked the PR fire. Hundreds of media covered the controversy, including CNN, Vox, Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.
M&Ms kept mum to the hoopla in 2022.
On January 23, 2023, after Carlson’s second outburst, M&M’s announced the spokescandies were taking “an indefinite pause” and SNL alum Maya Rudolph would replace them as spokesperson.
A message from M&M’S. pic.twitter.com/EMucEBTd9o
— M&M’S (@mmschocolate) January 23, 2023
Tucker Carlson declared victory. Pundits and commentators hypothesized why they would do this.
Five days later, the indefinite pause proved to be a publicity stunt. M&M’s assured the world the spokescandies would be back with an ad during the Superbowl.
The public was primed for a major M&M’s statement on inclusion or at least an entertaining commercial. They received a lame mock ad for clam-flavored M&M’s.
The spokescandies addressed their return in an ad that ran AFTER the Superbowl game was over. Three spoke, but said nothing about inclusion.
Where M&M’s Marketing Went Wrong
While it is true that a brand identity sets direction for marketing communications like advertising, it does more than that.
A brand’s purpose serves as a North Star for the entire organization. It determines strategy and initiatives, guides employees in decision-making, and shapes company culture.
Employees want to work for a brand with a purpose they believe in.
But a brand purpose only succeeds if the company embraces it and is willing to defend it.
Otherwise, it’s lip service.
M&M’s used their purpose to fund a few initiatives, create a sensitivity board, tweak their spokescandies, and generate publicity.
When public discourse didn’t go as planned, the company recoiled and used the moment for another publicity stunt.
Their commercials seemed to say don’t take us seriously.
Two days after the Superbowl, M&M’s announced they were celebrating the official return of the spokescandies by doubling the number of $10,000 grants offered to “change-making women” from 10 to 20, “putting the ‘fun’ in funding their initiatives while increasing the opportunity for trailblazing women to champion a positive impact on society.”
M&M’s PR team generated lots of free press coverage, but the brand has taken a big hit on their credibility.
Their actions have left me wondering:
- Do they think funding 20 women’s initiatives is a box to check to fulfill their mission?
- Are they serious about inclusion or just jumping on the purpose-driven brand bandwagon?
- What do their employees feel about how they handled the situation?
- How will they measure progress toward their 10-million-more-included goal?
- Do their FUNd board members believe their mission or feel like window dressing?
- Do they think I’ll believe anything they say next January?
I’m betting many M&M’s customers are wondering too. M&M’s may be repelling people more than making them feel included.
M&M’s, Show Your True Colors
If M&M’s believe they are uniquely poised to use fun to promote inclusivity, then they should lean into it, not shy away when controversy hits.
Begin in house. The first people M&M’s should make feel included are their employees. They need to feel the fun and inclusion before they can help the brand demonstrate that to the world. If M&M’s culture isn’t fun and inclusive, no campaign can convince the world the brand is.
Stand up for your beliefs. View Tucker Carlson’s commentary as more than just publicity. It’s challenging the brand’s identity. Bark back.
Let your identity guide you. If you are fun and inclusive, those attributes should guide your message and voice as you support and defend your purpose.
Demand your creative team meet the challenge. Ask your agency to craft a response, not a retreat. Red used to be bossy and is now nicer. Maybe he could address the situation via what he has learned about kindness and inclusivity, in a fun manner of course.
Involve Maya Rudolph. A casualty of M&M’s publicity seeking is their underutilization of the veteran comedian. Not only is she a fun, fabulous talent with the right demeanor to help M&M’s mission, but she is also Black and Jewish, embodying the brand’s attributes.
Accept that not everyone will agree. This is where many brands struggle. To have a purpose means to stand for something. Not everyone will agree. It’s ironic, but standing for inclusion may deter some people.
Using fun to promote inclusivity is a great idea. I hope M&M’s can implement it beyond publicity stunts and donations, and not melt when challenged.
What was your reaction to M&M’s marketing hullaballoo?
Just for Fun
Check out this M&M’s advertising playlist, with 331 TV ads from 1941 to 2022, including this much better Superbowl commercial from 2021 – already on the fun and inclusive trail a year before they announced their new mission.