M&M’s new campaign to bring people closer together triggers blowback, snark across social media

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Tamar Dundua / Getty
Source: Tamar Dundua / Getty

Related tags M&Ms branding Chocolate Mars Confectionery

The green M&M is trading in her go-go boots for kicky low-rise sneakers and toning down her sexuality as part of a brand refresh by Mars intended to make the candies “more inclusive, welcoming and unifying,” but it appears to be having the opposite effect based on consumers’ social media responses.

Mars unveiled M&M’s “more modern take on the looks of our beloved characters, as well as more nuanced personalities to underscore the importance of self-expression and power of community through storytelling”​ last Thursday, and by Friday it was doing damage control across social media as consumers mercilessly riffed on the changes and expressed a wide range of – often negative – responses.

While some consumers praised the move, noting they were glad to see a mascot wearing flats and sneakers like them, others, like @taliaa315 on Instagram, took a more pointed tone asking if “making girlie give up her cute boots [is] female empowerment,”​ and noting that people can be sexy and empowered at the same time.

Mostly the brand has kept its responses light with jokes by Green about how her shoes “broke the Internet,” ​a challenge that if people loved her boots so much they should try wearing them for 20 years straight, and an admission on Twitter that she didn’t ‘get rid of them.’ The brand also reiterated multiple times that it is ok for people to be whoever they want, ostensibly including sexy, empowered and both at the same time.

The responses are in line with Mars’ commitment to “remain rooted in our signature jester wit and humor,”​ even as it updates the tone of voice of its marketing and mascots to be more welcoming.

Other comments were more pointed and likely harder to laugh off, which might explain why the brand stayed mum.

For example, many commenters suggested the campaign launch was timed to distract from a lawsuit​ filed late last year against the company and several other players in the chocolate category about alleged child labor violations in the cocoa supply chain. Others suggested that if Mars wanted to make a difference it could have donated the money it spent on the rebrand to those in need.

Mars does have an active giving campaign and in 2018 launched its Cocoa for Generations ​strategy and committed to investing more than $10bn through 20228 to better protect children, preserve forests and improve farmer income across the supply chain. As part of this effort, it is building out its Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation Systems and increasing access to education and development opportunities to children.  

Now might be a good time to talk about these efforts, but doing so within the confines of M&M’s “signature jester wit and humor,” could be tough and new strategy or alternate communication strategy may be in order.

Revamp down plays gender, opens door to discuss equality

As lively as the debate about Green’s new shoes were, the switch was only way that the brand modernized its portrayal of women.

For example, Green not only ditched her go-go boots, but along with the other female character Brown, dropped the “Ms.” from before her name – a move that both deemphasizes gender and better aligns the characters to their male counterparts who rarely used ‘Mr.’ even if it was technically part of their names.

As for personality, Green’s “best quality,” according to her profile page is “being a hypewoman for my friends,”​ noting “we all win when we see more women in leading roles.”​ Green also says she is “happy to take on the part of a supportive friend when they succeed”​ – an add-on that seems to reinforce the stereotype of women in supporting roles and as nurturing.

Brown, however, appears to more directly support the idea of women leaders with the new motto, “Not bossy. Just the boss.” Like Green, she also is sporting new shoes – slightly shorter high heels than the stilettos she used to wear.

In announcing the changes, Mars tied its efforts in the campaign to those at the corporate level, where the company is striving to advance gender equality​ across its workforce, marketplace and the communities where it source materials through its Full Potential Platform.

Again, the company’s successes and advances at a corporate level ​may not be appropriate fodder for M&M commercials, but better promotion of these efforts could balance some of the negative blow back on social media that it isn’t meaningfully advancing gender equality.

Orange stands in and up for mental health

The mascot personalities of Orange, Red and Yellow also are being tweaked in the new campaign to better align with modern consumers and to foster a sense of support and togetherness.

For example, Red who has been known to bully the other mascots from time to time in his quest to maintain his celebrity status will better share the limelight with the other characters going forward, the brand told​ The Washington Post.

And in an apparent nod to the heightened level of anxiety due to the pandemic and other stressors, Orange will continue to be positioned as a nervous-nelly, but the brand says he will also come across as okay with that – finding a level of self-acceptance that many consumers likely still strive for and to which they can relate, especially during the pandemic when mental health has taken centerstage.

Consumers on Twitter lauded this subtle shift with @NifMuhammad calling it “DEEPLY moving” and calling the mascot a “brother in anxiety.” Others, like @bimbotoad lauded the decision to better represent how mental illness impacts ordinary people.

Still others found fault -- lamenting that Orange’s shoes still don’t seem to fit, but at least now they are tied.

Beyond the mascots

While the mascots may be the most visible aspect of the campaign, the brand is making other subtle changes that it hopes will deliver an outsized positive message.

To further foster a sense of inclusion and unity, the brand also has “added emphasis on the ampersand”​ in M&M “to more prominently demonstrate how the brand aims to bring people together.”

While early results suggest the changes may be more divisive than unifying with droves of social media users saying they will no longer buy the brand now that it is ‘woke,’ triggering trolling and offended comments by other users, Mars is holding true to its earnest goal.

Mars says the new campaign is part of its broader effort to use “the power of fun to include everyone with the goal of increasing the sense of belonging for 10 million people around the world by 2025.”

This ambitious, but also vague goal will be tracked through M&M’s FUNd, which Mars says, “will offer resources, mentorship, opportunities and financial support in the arts and entertainment space to help ensure people have access to experiences where everyone feels they belong.”

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