Rebranding Must Signal Real Change

In a recent report from Cheddar, Jen Hwang, Global Vice President of M&M’s, shares the rationale behind reworking classic M&Ms characters to become more inclusive. “M&M’s is on a mission to create a world where everyone feels they belong,” says Huang. She says the multicolored and embodied candy will get an updated look and tone, like green getting a makeover that reflects more women’s empowerment and confidence.

We’ve seen this story before.

I remember in 2011, when Diageo decided Bailey’s Irish Cream was all about empowering women, and launched a campaign around that idea. While the drinks skew towards women, there has been a disconnect between what the product actually offers (which is a “beautiful and wonderful treat”) and how that empowers women.

For M&Ms, they focus on Gen Z, and apparently believe Gen Z cares about diverse and advanced desserts. Some might do. But many just want to enjoy dessert without getting political. Some feedback from Twitter:

  • “Our candy is giving a lecture to us now…wow.”
  • “This is because a lot of people are getting paid too much to stand up and keep busy”
  • I remember the old days when M&Ms were just ‘melt in your mouth’ candy, not in your hands.
  • “I hampered the brand by not understanding it. When I want to feel strong, I eat carrots, not M&Ms”

M&Ms is just one of many brands that have overexplained their rationale regarding recent brand choices to the point of parody. It is shown to be predictable and performant. Removing high-heeled shoes from Green M&M to replace them with sneakers has nothing to do with empowerment.

Brands need to resist the temptation to capitalize and politicize their actions to serve the way they want to be seen. Much recent discourse has focused on managing cognition rather than influencing real change. Not surprisingly, people’s hypothetical state is mistrust. Our politicians exaggerate the allegations. Our media is driven by narrative rather than facts. While symbols, amulets, and icons can represent ideas, if ideas have nothing to support them, why give any credence to them?

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

#1 Make the change and keep the fuss to a minimum.

Yes, marketing assistants may be interested in the inner workings of strategic transformation, but the public in general is not, and they don’t need to know that. Moreover, when your ad uses awakening buzzwords, you will alienate half of your audience. It was easy to say “We’ve updated our characters to reflect a new era. It’s been xx years since we did that and we felt the need to change.” There was no need to explain what was in the brief – that this effort was aimed at increasing inclusion and promoting a better sense of belonging. For those of us who are progressive, these buzzwords don’t get released. But for consumers with conservative leanings, well, just take a look at what the Daily Mail has to say.

#2 Make the change, bring hype, and back it up with specific actions

Updating long-loved characters from a 100-plus-year brand is a big deal. If M&Ms wanted to share the “why” behind the choices they made, they might consider jointly announcing specific initiatives that would show the brand is living these new values. The reason Green M&M changed from heels to sneakers may be related to an effort to recruit women into a mentorship program that puts them on the department’s fast track. Red M&M may put its leadership skills to the task of 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 let me out of your self-respect. Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not to impress me with your nobility. The struggle of virtue is just one example of the metaphor of psychological chatter.” It’s old school about ‘upgrading’ consumer benefits. Often to the point where they have nothing to do with the product at hand.”

Avoid the temptation to sell virtue. Nobody buys that.

At The Blake Project, we help clients from all over the world, at all stages of development, Redefining and clarifying what makes them competitive in critical moments of change Through in-person or online strategy workshops. Please email us for more.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: a brand strategy consulting firm specializing in brand research, brand strategy, brand growth, and brand education.

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