Rebranding Must Signal Real Change

Chris WrenJanuary 24, 202264874 min

In a recent report from Cheddar, Jane Hwang, global vice president of M&M’s, shared the rationale behind the reworking of the classic M&Ms characters to become more inclusive. Hwang says, “M&M’s is on a mission to create a world where everyone feels they belong,”. She says the multi-colored, anthropomorphized candies will be getting an updated look and tone, such as Green receiving a makeover that reflects more female empowerment and confidence.

We’ve seen this story before.

Recall in 2011, when Diageo decided Bailey’s Irish Cream was about empowering women, and launched a campaign around that idea. While the beverage skews towards women, there was a disconnect between what the product actually delivers (which is a “sweet, lovely treat”) and how that empowers women.

For M&Ms, they are focused on Gen Z, and apparently believe Gen Z cares about diverse and progressive candies. Maybe some do. But many just want to enjoy their candy without it becoming political. Some reactions from Twitter:

  • “Our candy is now lecturing us… awesome.”
  • “This is due to too many people being paid too much to stand around and look busy”
  • “I remember the good old days when M&Ms were just candy that ‘melted in your mouth, not in your hands’”
  • “She’s handicapped the brand by not understanding it. When I want to feel empowered, I eat carrots not M&Ms”

M&Ms is just one of many brands that have over-explained their rationale regarding recent branding choices to the point of parody. And it comes across as predictable and performative. Removing the Green M&M’s high heeled boots to replace them with sneakers doesn’t have anything to do with empowerment.

Brands need to resist the temptation to capitalize and politicize their actions in the service of how they wish to be perceived. Too much of the modern discourse of late has focused around managing perception instead of affecting real change. It’s not a surprise that people’s default state is to mistrust. Our politicians exaggerate claims. Our media is driven by narrative instead of facts. While symbols, mascots and icons can represent ideas, if the ideas have nothing to back them up, why give any credence?

In my estimation, M&Ms had two good choices:

#1 Make The Change And Keep The Fanfare To A Minimum.

Yes, us marketing acolytes might be interested in the inner workings of a strategic shift, but the public at large is not, and they do not need to know. Furthermore, when your announcement uses woke buzzwords, you will alienate half of your audience. It would have been easy to say “we’ve refreshed our characters to reflect a new era. It had been xx years since we’ve done this and felt the need for a change.” There was no need to explain what was in the brief – that this effort was meant to dial up the inclusion and promote a better sense of belonging. For those of us who are progressive, those buzzwords are not triggering. But for your conservative-leaning consumers, well, just look at what the Daily Mail had to say.

#2 Make The Change, Bring The Fanfare, AND Back It Up With Specific Actions

An update to long-beloved characters from a 100+ year brand is a big deal. If M&Ms had wanted to share the “why” behind the choices they made, they might have considered jointly announcing specific initiatives that would show the brand is living these new values. The reason to change the Green M&M from heels to sneakers might have been tied to an effort to recruit women into a mentorship program that puts them on a fast track to management. The Red M&M might put his leadership skills to task ensuring that M&Ms production plants are carbon-neutral by 2030. You get the idea.

I go back to one of my favorite quotes from Bob Hoffman. “Do you, as a company, have certain values? That’s great. Support them with money and actions but, please, leave me out of your self-regard. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not to impress me with your nobility. Virtue-hustling is just one example of the old school psycho-babble trope of ‘laddering-up’ of consumer benefits. Often to the point at which they have no relationship to the product at hand.”

Avoid the temptation to sell virtue. Nobody is buying that.

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change through our in-person or online strategy workshops. Please email us for more.

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