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This is a self-funded case study using our packaging testing solution.
While they might be one of marketing’s most famous distinctive assets, M&M’s seemingly innocent anthropomorphic characters aren’t immune to controversy. In fact, recent years has seen them at the center of much drama and debate. Labelled by some as a flash point in the culture wars, the iconic candy — which once used the motto ‘melt in your mouth, not in your hand’ — has seemingly become too polarizing for Americans to handle.
Tweaks to the animated spokescandies and their attire led to declarations that the brand had turned ‘woke’. The changes, as subtle as a new pair of ‘less feminine’ shoes on the green M&M through to the introduction of an entirely new purple M&M, aimed to represent acceptance and inclusivity. Purple’s introduction in late-2022 saw the candy become the third female member of the team, courting an even greater level of criticism toward the brand.
Storm in a teacup? Maybe. But however trivial the tweaks were, the backlash was significant enough for the brand to temporarily withdraw the spokescandies from public view. This culminated in the bizarre Ma&Ya’s campaign which aired during Super Bowl 2023. Coinciding with these changes was the release of a limited-time pack redesign which aimed to celebrate and empower women on International Women’s Day. The new aesthetic turned the newly introduced Purple and her female counterparts upside down, reflecting the brand’s support for gender equality.
While parent company Mars Wrigley were likely bracing themselves for some sort of backlash, response to the redesign wasn’t all bad. Some liked the visualization of the brand’s support for women, finding the literal flipping of the characters a clever way of bringing the message to life. In addition the pack remained reasonably recognizable for M&Ms, courtesy of the brand’s rigorous adherence to congruency and uniformity.
However, there were also some issues. Although well-intentioned, the brand failed to communicate the wider actions being taken to support women. Yes, the risk of cluttering a pack with messaging is a significant concern (read more about our tennis ball analogy). However, by not prioritizing (in fact, by entirely forgoing) that M&M’s was pledging $1 from every pack to women in creative industries, the message to some felt like mere sugar-coated tokenism rather than purposeful action.
Given it’s often the only touchpoint consumers ever interact with, packaging must be able to stand on its own. Relying on broader communications and in-store material to carry critical information is risky to say the least. While we’ll save the broader debate around ‘going woke’ for others, there’s no doubting the great lengths brands are going in an effort to remain topical and relevant. But brands must be mindful that the wider population is becoming increasingly skeptical of purpose-driven messaging, questioning the motives of brands making loose claims with little action to back them up. Testing pack redesigns (whether for a social purpose or simply just as a facelift), helps provide guidance on whether the new look will live up to internal hype, and ultimately whether the brand will still remain easy to find and buy.