The M&M’s Aren’t Done With Us Yet

Despite the announcement M&M’s made this week — that the company would be taking “an indefinite pause” from its spokescandies in favor of the “beloved” actress Maya Rudolph — the truth is, they aren’t actually going anywhere.

“Rest assured, the characters are our official long-term spokescandies,” a representative for the company wrote in an email. While “the iconic M&M’s characters are in fact spending some time pursuing their other passions” ahead of the Super Bowl, during the big game, its commercial will resolve the matter, returning “the characters right where they belong at the heart of the brand.”

This past year, it became clear that M&M’s evoke strong feelings. Modifications to the product itself elicited little controversy — the candy-coated chocolates have announced new fillings, like Caramel Cold Brew, yet have remained fundamentally the same — but, when it comes to marketing, the brand has a knack for stirring up controversy. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson in particular has become one of M&M’s biggest haters, grousing about the company’s perceived wokeness on his nightly show.

To understand the latest development in candygate, it may be helpful to go back to January 2022, when M&M’s rebranded its spokescandies with inclusivity in mind. The orange M&M embraced his anxiety disorder (an effort to ramp up his existing appeal to Gen Z, the company said at the time), and the formerly “sexy” green M&M traded her high-heel boots for sensible sneakers.

The response online was overwhelming. Millennials and Zoomers who had only ever known a world with an eroticized green M&M jokingly demanded that the company return the spokescandy to her carnal form. Soon after, the candy was pulled into the culture wars. Mr. Carlson declared his preference for a sexy green M&M, devoting a segment to the rebrand on his show, using the chyrons “PROGRESS AT LAST: PLAIN, FRUMPY M&M CANDY” and “MISERABLE, NONBINARY CANDY IS ALL WE DESERVE.”

“M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous,” Mr. Carlson said.

Since then, the candy mascots’ cultural cachet has only grown. In September, Mars introduced a brand-new spokescandy, a purple M&M “designed to represent acceptance and inclusivity,” the company said in a statement. She shattered the glass ceiling by becoming the first female peanut M&M, but managed to elude the wrath of Mr. Carlson until this month, when Mars announced a limited-edition packets of M&M’s that contained only the colors associated with its female characters (green, purple and brown). “Woke M&M’s have returned,” Mr. Carlson declared. Another Fox News host said feminism-branded packages of M&M’s will help China take over the world.

Many have interpreted M&M’s recent decision to sideline its spokescandies as the company kowtowing to Mr. Carlson’s criticism. But the brand has something else on its mind: “We’re confident that fans who have embraced the M&M’S brand purpose and the refreshed characters launched in the past year will be pleased,” wrote the M&M’s representative, referring to the run-up to the Super Bowl, one of the advertising world’s most important events.

“The mistake that M&M’s made was that they didn’t own the story,” said Alex Center, who formerly worked as a designer and brand strategist for Coca-Cola, and has also worked on campaigns for Nike and Apple. “They didn’t embrace the conversation that was happening about their brand. They were trying to push it one way with a cheery message of unity.”

Debbie Millman, the co-founder and chair of the School of Visual Arts’s graduate program in branding, agreed that M&M’s handled the backlash to its rebrand poorly. The spokescandy suspension, she said, amounted to backtracking on inclusivity, even if it was meant to be a lead-up to its Super Bowl ad.

“If they really believed in inclusivity, if they really believed in having representation in these spokescandies, they absolutely should have known it was going to be polarizing,” Ms. Millman said. “If they really wanted to make a change and a stand for what they believed in, they should have the backbone to stick with it.”

“Being culturally relevant is a good thing,” Mr. Center said of the situation M&M’s finds itself in. The company should explicitly embrace its position on the front lines of the culture wars, he continued, and use this moment to poke fun at itself.

But the reaction reflects a broader trend of legacy brands trying, and often failing, to connect with a new audience of socially conscious young people.

Ms. Millman contrasted the M&M’s debacle with Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick in 2018. “When that relationship was first announced, people were running over their Nike sneakers, burning them, destroying them. People thought Nike had made a mistake,” she said. “Three months later, Nike’s market share had gone up. Brands now have to take risks if they’re going to make a meaningful connection with their constituents.”

Legacy brands have found it difficult to connect with young people particularly when its ad campaigns address social-justice issues. In 2019, Burger King introduced a line of its alternative “mood meals” to exist in opposition to the Happy Meal (e.g., the “Blue Meal,” the “DGAF Meal,” the “Yaaas Meal”) in a campaign tied to mental health awareness. Pepsi waded into similar territory with a commercial starring the model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner in which she hands a police officer a Pepsi while attending a protest.

“It’s a tricky, dangerous position when brands use very real, very human challenges that we face as a society, to insert that into your advertising and marketing and putting your brand into the middle of it,” Mr. Center said. “People, especially young people, are incredibly astute and incredibly aware that that’s what’s happening.”

Mr. Center believes younger companies and organizations that don’t have an easily searchable history are better able to connect with younger people.

Advertising tends to be most effective when brands communicate their values instead of what they think young consumers want to hear.

M&M’s has yet to do that, but the company seems to be dangling its response to all this attention with its coming Super Bowl ad. Consumers will just have to wait and see.

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