How M&M’s is making the most of its box controversy

New York

Over the past year, M&M’s has been the subject of Fox News tirades and criticism from a small segment of fans — first for changing Green M&M’s footwear and more recently for featuring female M&M characters on International Women’s Day packaging.

So this week it announced a change: After the flood of attention, its characters are embarking on a “indefinite break,” handing over spokesperson responsibilities to actress and comedian Maya Rudolph.

Given the amount of attention, some believe M&M’s announcement is a PR stunt to hype its upcoming Super Bowl commercial. But experts note that not all publicity is good. And M&M’s might just be trying to regain control of a narrative that’s spun out of control.

“I think M&M’s fell into more of a political debate than they had hoped for,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

M&M’s relatively subtle changes aimed at inclusivity didn’t seem like they were designed to spark much controversy, if any. But that did not happen.

M&M’s first revealed changes to its characters in January 2022, such as switching out Green’s go-go boots for sneakers and replacing other characters’ shoes in what the company called an effort to make the characters more relevant and inclusive. Its message was the same in September when we added Purple, a new female character. So earlier this month, the company celebrated Women’s Day by turning the Mrs in its logo upside down to look like Ws — a typographic trick McDonald’s used five years ago.

Fox News mockingly deemed the brand “woke” after the brand changed the characters’ shoes. Tucker Carlson complained about the candy characters’ new and, from his perspective, less “sexy” look.

“M&M’s won’t be satisfied until every single cartoon character is deeply unappealing,” Carlson said.

The take machine also swirled online from Twitter to publications. In the Washington Post, for example, an opinion piece declared “M&M’s changes aren’t progressive. Give Green back her boots.” And after the introduction of Purple and the Women’s Day package, Fox News once again took aim at the brand.

“What M&M’S has tried to do over the last few years is to be very inclusive and make sure that these characters represent in a positive way,” said Calkins, the Northwestern professor. “They’ve been quite deliberate in their efforts to do that.”

What they didn’t want was to end up a target for right-wing commentators. “I think they desperately didn’t set out to be a target for Fox News,” Calkins said. “There’s only two ways you can really play this. You either back away from the characters, or you stand up and really get into a fight.”

This week’s announcement suggests that M&M’s decided to go with the first option. But it does so with an eye toward controversy, a strategy that may ultimately play out in its favor.

If the brand can pull it off of course.

When M&M’s announced its partnership with Maya Rudolph, it alluded to the reaction to Green’s shoes.

“Over the past year, we’ve made some changes to our beloved spoke candidates,” M&M’s said. “We weren’t sure if anyone would even notice. And we certainly didn’t think it would break the Internet. But now we get it—even a candy shoe can be polarizing.”

To say that the reaction to Green’s shoes broke the Internet might be overstating things, in M&M’s favor. But the statement itself sparked several reactions online from other brands like A&W piggyback to get some attention yourself.

And it is difficult to measure any sales effect of the grade changes or the reaction to them. The brand has experienced a “record amount of interest in and conversions about our spokesperson candidates,” according to a spokesperson. But owner Mars, which is private, does not share sales figures.

Rudolph will star in an upcoming in-game ad, but the company announced the ad back in December before the latest round of criticism, adding that the partnership wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction.

The deal with Rudolph has been “in the works for quite some time,” Gabrielle Wesley, chief marketing officer for Mars Wrigley North America, said in a statement this week. “Let me say definitively that this decision is not in response to, but rather in support of, our M&M’s brand,” Wesley said.

As for the speaker candidates – they may be benched for now, but they’re not going anywhere.

“The original colorful cast of M&M’s spokescandies are currently pursuing other personal passions,” Wesley said. Fans will learn more about their situation in the coming weeks, according to the brand.

ONE tweet from Snickersalso owned by Mars, suggests they could be used in the chocolate bar campaign.

Taking spoke candies out of the spotlight wouldn’t be unusual for M&M’s, though. The characters have been around since the 1950s, but over the years M&M’s has leaned more or less heavily on them in promotions.

But there is a risk in pulling back, noted Geraldo Matos, associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University. Customers may wonder if M&M’s has turned its back on the original plan to use ideas of inclusivity to market its product. “They may have placed themselves in the middle of upsetting both parties.”

Giving grades a break seems like a good strategy to Lauren Labrecque, associate professor of marketing at the University of Rhode Island.

“I think they will bring the characters back and probably within a year’s time, if not less,” she predicted. “And when they come back, people — especially M&M’s fans — will have all forgotten what the controversy even was, and they’ll be very welcoming.”

Plus, she added, this is a low-stakes situation. “It’s not a serious outrage,” she said. On the spectrum of brand controversies, “this is so unimportant.” Because of all that, “it will be a net positive.”

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