How MMs is making the most of its Spokescandies controversy

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

New York CNN —

For the past year, M&M’s has been the subject of Fox News tirade and criticism from a small segment of fans – initially for changing the green M&M’s shoes and more recently featuring female M&M characters on the International Women’s Day packaging.

So this week it announced a change: After the flood of attention, its characters are going on a “indefinite pause‘ which turns over narration responsibility to actress and comedian Maya Rudolph.

Given the overwhelming attention, some believe M&M’s announcement was a PR stunt to hype the upcoming Super Bowl commercial. But experts note that not all advertising is good. And M&Ms might just be trying to take back control of a story that’s spiraled out of control.

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

M&M’s relatively subtle changes aimed at inclusion didn’t seem designed to cause much controversy, if any. But it didn’t happen that way.

M&M’s first revealed changes to its characters in January 2022, such as swapping out Green’s go-go boots for sneakers and swapping out other characters’ shoes in what the company described as an effort to make the characters more relevant and inclusive. His message was similar in September when Purple, a new female character, was added. Then, earlier this month, the company celebrated Women’s Day by flipping the Ms in its logo upside down to make it look like Ws — a typographic trick McDonald’s used five years ago.

Earlier this year, ahead of International Women's Day, M&M'S released limited edition packs featuring the female character trio Green, Brown and Purple.

Fox News mockingly dubbed the brand “awakened” after the brand changed characters’ shoes. Tucker Carlson complained about the new and, in his view, less “sexy” look of the candy characters.

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

Twitter’s take machine also whirled to the publications online. For example, an opinion piece in the Washington Post stated: “M&M’s changes are not progressive. Give Green her boots back.” And after the launch of Purple and the Women’s Day package, Fox News took another look at the brand.

“What M&M’S has tried to do over the past few years is to be very inclusive and make sure these characters are represented in a positive way,” said Calkins, the Northwestern professor. “They made a conscious effort to do that.”

What they didn’t want was to be the target of right-wing commentators. “I think they really didn’t want to be a Fox News target,” Calkins said. “There are only two ways to really play it here. You either have to back away from the characters, or you have to stand up and really engage in a fight.”

This week’s announcement suggests that M&M’s has opted for the first option. But it does so with a wink at controversy, a strategy that could ultimately work in its favor.

If of course the brand can pull it off.

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

“Over the last year we’ve made some changes to our beloved Spokescandies,” said M&M’s. “We weren’t sure if anyone would even notice. And we definitely didn’t think it would break the internet. But now we get it — even a candy’s shoes can polarize.”

To say that the reaction to Green’s shoes broke the internet might be an exaggeration for M&M. But the statement itself drew more reactions online and from other brands like A&W piggyback to get your own attention.

And it’s hard to measure the sales impact of the character changes, or the response to them. The brand has seen “record-breaking interest in and conversions to our Spokescandies,” according to a spokesperson. However, private owner Mars does not share sales figures.

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

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

As for the Spokescandies – they might be on a bench for now, but they’re not going anywhere.

“The original eclectic cast of M&M’s Spokescandies has other personal passions right now,” Wesley said. Fans will learn more about their situation in the coming weeks, according to the brand.

A Tweet from Snickersalso owned by Mars, suggests they could be used in the candy bar’s campaign.

Taking the Spokescandies out of the limelight wouldn’t be unusual for M&M’s, however. The characters have been around since the 1950s, but over the years M&M’s has relied more or less heavily on them for promotions.

But there is a risk of retiring, 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 inclusivity ideas to market its product. “They may have placed themselves in the middle to anger both parties.”

Lauren Labrecque, associate professor of marketing at the University of Rhode Island, seems to give the characters a break as a good strategy.

“I think they’re going to bring the characters back, and probably within a year if not less,” she predicted. “And when they come back, people – especially the M&M fans – will have all forgotten what the controversy was in the first place and they will be very welcome.”

Also, she added, this is a low stakes situation. “It’s not serious outrage,” she said. On the spectrum of brand controversy, “this is so trivial.” Because of this, “it will be a net positive.”