What the Heck Is M&M's Doing With Its Spokescandies?

The brand's sales and reputation have remained in good health despite mascot backlash

Ever since M&M’s updated its mascots a year ago to focus more on inclusivity and belonging, many loud voices on cable news and social media have expressed disapproval.

Last week, the candy brand announced an “indefinite pause” on its spokescandies due to their “polarizing” nature.

Critics cheered. “Go woke, go broke,” many tweeted. Tucker Carlson declared victory. The M&M’s characters, several media outlets reported, had been canceled.

But is that what’s happening? Was replacing Green’s knee-high boots with casual sneakers a step too far? Was it the recent female-only packaging, meant to support women challenging the status quo? Did the debut of Purple, and her message of self-acceptance, push some people over the edge?

Or is all this just one big misunderstanding? Couldn’t M&M’s “indefinite pause” announcement, as some have assumed, be part of a larger marketing effort designed to promote the brand’s upcoming Super Bowl commercial made with BBDO New York on Feb. 12?

“These are the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, so of course we’re going to start to create buzz leading up to our return,” said Gabrielle Wesley, chief marketing officer at parent company Mars Wrigley North America.

Sure enough, M&M’s has recently rolled out more content to make people stop and wonder. Yellow, for instance, appears in a tweet as the potential new mascot for sibling brand Snickers. Orange is curating meditative tracks on Spotify. The idea, it seems, is that Red and the gang are on hiatus from their regular gig to pursue other projects. At least for now.

Meanwhile, actor Maya Rudolph, who is apparently M&M’s new spokesperson and will star in its 30-second spot during the Big Game, has somehow changed the brand’s name from M&M’s to Ma&Ya’s.

Much of this might not make sense right now, but a statement from the brand reassures America there is a plan. All this activity, it notes, will resolve itself during M&M’s Super Bowl appearance “with the characters right where they belong, at the heart of the brand.” The statement concludes by noting fans “won’t be disappointed with how this story ends.”

Reckless decision or safe bet?

Still, the fact M&M’s decided to lean into a heated public debate on gender and identity to generate brand awareness is a bold one. Dangerous, even, because conservatives buy chocolate, too.

For example: The week M&M’s introduced its revamped spokescandies in January 2022, brand mentions across various websites and social channels were 1,139% higher than average compared with the previous 12-month period, according to Brandwatch, a consumer intelligence and social media management platform. Lots of people said lots of negative stuff, dragging M&M’s into the culture wars.

It’s reasonable to assume M&M’s has somehow suffered. Its reputation must be damaged. Sales must be declining.

Sometimes, though, noise on the internet is just that—noise. And no one is in a better position to know than M&M’s.

Prashant Malaviya, professor of marketing at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, suspects M&M’s has information indicating most people going about their daily lives—worried about paying the phone bill, applying to grad school, finding out who said what about them at the party last night—aren’t taking a strong position on how M&M’s portrays its characters.

Therefore, the brand is probably doing just fine. As Malaviya put it: “This would be one of those great examples where any publicity is good publicity.”

Evidence supports this hunch.

Data from decision intelligence company Morning Consult, which runs daily surveys asking U.S. adults to share their opinion on thousands of brands, shows the American public has held a positive impression of M&M’s throughout 2022. A look at figures from self-identified Republicans and Democrats results in a relatively flat line, suggesting whatever anger toward the mascots may exist, it doesn’t register on a national level.

Additional numbers gauging public sentiment for commercials featuring the new spokescandies show most everyone likes them, according to television ad measurement and analytics firm iSpot.tv. Indeed, M&M’s advertisements aired in 2022 rate higher than average for brands in the candy category. And, again, there’s no significant divide between Democrats and Republicans.

Even in terms of revenue, the progressive-minded mascots haven’t hurt M&M’s. Syndicated statistics show dollar sales were up 4.4% in 2021 and 3.6% in 2022, according to a person with knowledge of the data who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter. Yes, the total volume of products sold declined last year, but that’s more due to distribution and supply chain issues than anything to do with Green’s new footwear, the person said.

According to Wesley, M&M’s sales and reputation have remained in good health following the redesigned mascots. Gen Z, especially, likes the brand a lot.

“We knew our M&M’s characters were beloved by consumers,” Wesley said, “We just gave them a reason to talk about them more.”

(As a private company, Mars often declines to share financial metrics. They didn’t budge this time, either.)

But how?

Not all companies can or should attempt to do what M&M’s appears to be doing. For now, flirting with contentious social issues is working for M&M’s for a couple of reasons.

First, the brand has been around for more than 80 years. It’s a part of American society. It’s embedded in how people have experienced the world.

“When we think about M&M’s, we’re thinking about getting them for Halloween when we were little or getting them in our Christmas stocking,” said Emily Moquin, a food and beverage analyst at Morning Consult. “So even if consumers see the coverage on Twitter or mainstream media, it’s a blip on that long-term relationship.”

Second, M&M’s are what Georgetown’s Malaviya calls “low-involvement products.” These are items shoppers don’t think about too much before purchasing. Unlike buying a car or house, which involves careful consideration, deciding which type of candy to grab at the gas station doesn’t demand the same degree of deliberation.

“Low-involvement products generate more sales when people think about them,” said Malaviya. “Whatever side you’re on, when you’re standing in the aisle and you see a bag of M&M’s, you’re not thinking of the political controversy. You just say, ‘Oh, M&M’s. I like those. Let me put it in my cart.'”

On this point, Wesley explained the unprecedented level of conversation, regardless of opinion, indicates people are interested in M&M’s and what it values. Ultimately, this is good for business.

As for what M&M’s has planned for the days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, Wesley said, “It’s all connected and will be a lot of fun.”