Breaking the Chocolate Mold: Marketing Lessons from a Sexy M&M

m m s chocolates in bowl

It’s the beginning of 2022. The world approaches its twentieth COVID-19 outbreak. A Cold War rests on the horizon. Minnie Mouse just got a pantsuit. The Green M&M lost her heels.

Is this hell? No, but close – it’s another lesson in corporate rebranding.

Mars – the company behind M&M’s – announced a complete redesign of their iconic M&M characters. Red will work on his kindness. Orange will learn to love his flaws. And Green will kick off the ole high heels in favor of a comfy sneaker. 

Historically, rebrands have always faced backlash. And die-hard M&M fans wasted no time bashing the company for de-sexifying their beloved chocolate beauty. Apparently, Green became something of a sex icon to fans for her circular curve, candied eyelashes, and, of course, white high heels.

To clarify, yes, we’re still talking about M&M’s.

But why did Mars do this? Did someone complain? Can we blame it on Gen Z? What about Millennials?

Mars wants to fit into today’s world

According to Mars, they modified their M&M characters to fit into a “more dynamic, progressive world”. Rather than focusing on each M&M’s gender, Mars wants to highlight their unique personalities.

Through the green M&M’s new look, Mars hopes to “better [represent] confidence and empowerment, as a strong female”. Red’s improved behavior embodies the company’s shifts towards inclusivity and belonging. And so on.

Brands move towards inclusivity usually after some form of backlash. For example, Victoria’s Secret tweaked their branding to become more diverse after years of controversy. So, did Mars face similar criticism for its M&M character designs?

After some research, kind of. The Wall Street Journal questioned how Mars could sell candy with a sexy M&M. But the journal published the piece in 1997, well over ten years ago.

In other words, Mars came out of left field with this rebranding. No major controversy or backlash prompted Mars to rethink how they marketed M&M’s. They just wanted to redefine the M&M brand on their own accord – but for more understated purposes.

Mars de-sexified the green M&M to pander

I’m sure the team behind this rebranding had good intentions. They likely felt pressure to modernize their characters before younger generations rejected them. And Gen Z will surely care about Mars’ push towards inclusion and diversity. 

Yet the rebrand feels like a class act in pandering. It comes off like a laughable attempt to appear “woke” while actually achieving nothing. At the end of the day, we’re talking about chocolate. So, removing a green M&M’s heels feels functionally useless.

Alternatively, why not sincerely promote feminism and inclusivity? Because of how little involvement consumers have when buying chocolate, a flat-shoed green M&M will not make people feel seen or heard. And it ultimately does nothing to help genuine initiatives.

Even worse, Mars acknowledged gender imbalance in their M&M characters. For those unaware, M&M’s feature four males and two females. So, to address this issue, Mars will use the two female M&M’s in ads more often.

But, what does this legitimately do? Why tout inclusivity as motivators for a rebrand while effectively doing nothing? It makes their rebrand come off as an attempt to go viral, which it did, instead of doing anything worthwhile.

Mars hopes to tap into Gen Z’s anxiety

The rebrand could have worked better if Mars appended it to something meaningful. For example, instead of promoting Orange’s relatable, Gen Z-esque anxiety, why not also highlight mental health resources? 

I find it strange to create a caraciture based on a generation’s anxiety. Orange’s entire persona centers on his intense fear of literal death. And given the fact he has a pretzel inside of him, his fears seem justified. 

In a strange way, Orange’s anxiety mirrors Gen Z’s fears around the climate crisis. Younger generations will inherit a burning, sinking world thanks to corporate giants like Mars. After all, the chocolate industry has notoriously contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.

So, when Mars harms the planet and promotes an anxious, death-concerned M&M, it feels like an ironic slap in the face to younger generations. Mars understands our anxiety but would rather tap into it as a marketing ploy instead of doing something about it. Sweet.

The M&M’s changing their accessories underscores the point of rebrands: to get people talking. Even if Mars claims their “progressive” take on M&M’s pushes inclusivity forward, they really just want attention. 

After all, the absurdity of a green M&M losing her white high heels in the middle of a pandemic makes for a viral story. And, for better or worse, Mars got exactly what they wanted.

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