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Trashing Your Treasure: An M&M Story

When I read the announcement that declared M&M's were "pausing" the use of their famous spokes-candies, my first thought was that it had to be a stunt.

January 23, 2023: Mars Wrigley released a statement on social media explaining it was shelving its M&M mascots.

"They must be doing this for attention in advance of an upcoming Super Bowl ad," I thought, "but at the end of the ad they'll say, 'just kidding, we aren't going anywhere!'"

Because even the tremendous popularity of beloved American comedian Maya Rudolph and the absurd controversy around the "woke" spokes-candies over the past year aren't good enough reasons for M&M's to discontinue what is arguably their only distinctive asset.

What's a Distinctive Asset?

The World Advertising Research Center (WARC) defines a distinctive brand asset as "a non-brand-name trigger for a brand name in category buyer memory. These can take verbal, visual or auditory form: think of Mastercard’s deep [association] with the word 'priceless', McDonald’s instantly-recognisable golden arches, or Intel’s famous five-note mnemonic."

Now tell me, what brand do you immediately think of when you see this dynamic duo?

Sure, the letters on their chests might be a dead giveaway, but the likely reason you can recognize these loveable characters is that they've been starring in M&M television commercials since late 1995. That's 28 years of associating these two with the candy brand.

Red, Yellow, and the rest of the M&M spokes-candies inarguably serve as a distinctive asset for M&Ms... and it's the only one the brand has. Professor Jenni Romaniuk, who coined the term "distinctive asset", posted this thought on LinkedIn:

In reviewing the examples of "Distinctive Assets listed above, it should be no surprise that it takes a lot of time, effort, and money for a brand to develop a distinctive asset.

So why should brands bother?

The Value of Distinctive Assets

Fundamentally, a brand serves as a mental shortcut for consumers. I don't need to spend hours in the laundry aisle determining which detergent to buy because "Tide" is already in my head as a detergent that meets my needs.

Of course, it took a lot for Tide to earn that spot in my brain, but now that I'm familiar with the benefits the product inside those distinctive orange packages delivers, it makes my detergent shopping just a little bit easier.

In a sense, a distinctive asset is a "shortcut for the shortcut". Tide is a mental shortcut for "clean clothes", and its "orange package" is a shortcut for Tide. For our typical lazy brains, distinctive assets help us recognize the products and services we want more efficiently.

It's not difficult to understand why brands would want to develop distinctive assets. As an example, look at the photo below: thanks to its "golden arches" (i.e. a distinctive asset), McDonald's doesn't need a lot of space (or daylight) to communicate "there's a McDonald's" up ahead. The text in the photo is almost completely illegible against the sunset, but there's no mistaking those arches for anything other than McDonald's.

And now that McDonald's has developed the"golden arches" as a distinctive asset, it can do creative (and effective) marketing activations like the "roadsign" one featured below, which simply wouldn't work if we didn't have that yellow "m" so firmly implanted into our brains:

Messing with your Distinctive Assets

Given how much time, effort, and money it takes for a brand to develop a distinctive asset, it would seem foolish not to take full advantage of the distinctive assets you've developed... and even more absurd to decide to discontinue the use of them altogether.

Yet unless the announcement was, in fact, a pre-Super Bowl stunt, it appears that's exactly what Mars Wrigley has chosen to do.

And it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume this is happening because of the self-inflicted controversy the brand has been plagued with over the past year.

"Roughly a year ago, Mars Wrigley updated the look of its M&M’s characters, announcing an initiative to make the mascots fit a “more dynamic, progressive world.” As part of these changes, the company introduced new designs of some of M&M’s characters and wrote weirdly elaborate backstories for others. Most notably, the company made the green M&M less “sexy” by shortening her legs and replacing her high-heeled boots with sneakers.

At the time, the change prompted criticism from feminist activists — being hot isn’t a problem unto itself — as well as far-right conservatives, who cast it as another battle in the culture wars. In January 2022, Tucker Carlson criticized the rebrand during a segment on Tucker Carlson Tonight."

I don't know what's more absurd, that there's a segment of the population that feels cartoon mascots need to be more inclusive, that there's a segment of the population who gets offended if a company decides to make their cartoon mascots more inclusive, or that a company feels its cartoon candy-coated chocolate mascots needed to be more "progressive" in the first place.

I'm leaning toward the last one, though.

Inclusivity is important, without question. And companies should have clearly defined missions, visions, and values that guide their decisions.

But not everything we buy needs to have a deep purpose attached to it. We buy M&Ms because we want to enjoy something sweet, not because we want to make a political statement. Sometimes candy-coated chocolate is just candy-coated chocolate.

It's certainly reasonable to want your spokes-candies to have a modern look and feel, especially when they've been around for 28 years. But there's a better way to do it.

As an example, do you recognize the cool cat (on the right) in the image below?

Sure you do, that's Frosted Flakes' Tony the Tiger... in 1954.

But Tony looks quite different today, doesn't he? You could say he looks grrrrrrreat!

Tony has been updated a few times over the years, but Tony's parent Kellogg made small, subtle changes over time to modernize its cereal mascot. It didn't make a significant change to his look and then issue a press release to announce Tony was now more "representative of our consumer". Possibly because Tony is a cartoon tiger, and since actual tigers don't buy children's cereal, that would be stupid.

Yet that's exactly the reason Mars Wrigley claimed to be updating M&M's cast of characters, kicking off this entire brand debacle.

Again, we're talking about candy-coated chocolate mascots: could Mars Wrigley do ANYTHING to make these cartoon characters more representative of their consumers?

Well, there is one thing they could do: they could ditch the cartoon spokes-candies and hire real people to represent the brand.

But let's talk about why that's a huge mistake.

Trading a Distinctive Asset for a Celebrity

M&Ms have featured celebrities in their advertisements many times before. Danny Devito, Christina Applegate, and Dan Levy are just a few that come to mind.

But in the past, when a celebrity was used, it was used WITH the brand's distinctive asset.

And from what it sounds like from the announcement, this year the brand will use a celebrity INSTEAD OF the brand's distinctive asset. That's a big difference.

Maya Rudolph is a very popular comedian with broad appeal. (No pun intended.)

But there are three obvious problems with using celebrity spokespeople, even one as well-liked as Ms. Rudolph:

1. Celebrities are expensive.

I don't know what Maya Rudolph is being paid to represent the M&Ms brand, but it's a safe bet it's a lot more than I'm going to earn this decade.

The M&M spokes-candies? They're literally owned by the brand. Sure, you might have to pay the people voicing the characters (for now), but the cost of developing the characters themselves was paid for long ago, so using them doesn't require any incremental fees.

2. Celebrities often have a popularity shelf-life.

Maya Rudolph is both popular and relevant today, but there's no guarantee that will be the case forever... in fact, the odds are against it. That means it's likely M&Ms will constantly need to be on the lookout for the next big person to serve as an endorsement.

The cartoon spokes-candies? They can evolve much more easily than most celebrities and thus remain relevant for longer periods.

3. Celebrities are people, and people sometimes do bad things.

Maya Rudolph doesn't appear to have any skeletons in her closet... at least none that have been reported. But she's human, and humans sometimes do stupid things. When you're a celebrity spokesperson, your stupid actions can reflect poorly on the brands you endorse.

Those M&M spokes-candies? The only stupid things they'll do are what Mars Wrigley tells its advertising agencies to make them do, which means the company doesn't have to worry about any unexpected situations that make the brand look bad.

Well, except for the ones they create for themselves.

Trashing Your Treasure

It takes a lot of time, effort, and money for a brand to develop a distinctive asset.

M&Ms has spent almost three decades developing its M&M spokes-candies, and in doing so, has created a valuable distinctive asset for its brand. The spokes-candies are a treasure and should be treated as such: valued, protected, and occasionally polished.

There is a chance the brand's announcement is, in fact, part of a Super Bowl stunt, and that the spokes-candies will work alongside Ms. Rudolph for the foreseeable future. Such a partnership would be a great way for the brand to move past its recent controversies and remain relevant to today's consumers.

But if it's not a joke and the brand is truly going to "pause" the use of its distinctive asset?

It would be the same as if you were to throw your most valuable possessions in the trash: an unnecessary, costly mistake you would likely come to regret.

Additional Reading:


P.S. Do you know who managed to secure a win out of this whole mess? A&W. Very soon after M&Ms made their announcement, they posted this on Twitter:

And then less than 24 hours later, they clarified that it was a joke. Bravo, A&W!


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