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M&M’s: Heat Wave, K-Rations and Van Halen.
How has such a simple product shown such remarkable staying power over decades?

Last week during a car ride to (what I can only assume was) some sort of after-school activity, my seven-year-old twins were discussing M&M’s, and whether they melted in your hands.

It was a cute conversation, the kind parents truly appreciate, particularly when it is wedged between the tireless bickering of siblings. But it really resonated with me, as my twins – like many kids their age – don’t see a lot of TV ads. (They stream shows, essentially cutting the TV cord.) Yet the concept that M&M’s “melt in your mouth, not in your hand” – a tag line that dates back to 1949 – has become such a big part of our culture that I have trouble imagining how someone couldn’t know this.

I should let the profound Tommy Boy elaborate:

It’s not surprising that M&M’s have been named as a Cult Brand Honoree this year. Not only is the brand truly timeless and iconic, but M&M’s continues to make great moves in strategy, creative and customer engagement. They continue to innovate and push the brand forward while staying true to their roots.

The tale of M&M’s is tied to a heat wave in 1941 and a chocolate partnership during World War II. In pre-air-conditioning times, confectioners would see a summer sales slump due to melting chocolate bars. An especially hot June in 1941 pushed Forrest Mars to seek a solution – hence the hard candy shell. Then, as wartime rationing threatened business, Mars partnered with William Murrie of Hershey to keep the chocolate flowing to the troops overseas. Mars & Murrie = M&M’s. After WWII, M&M’s moved from K-ration to store shelves and has been a candy counter mainstay since.

So how has such a simple product shown such remarkable staying power over decades? How has the candy giant continued to be relatable to generation after generation? How have they stayed such a cult brand?

The simple answer is: by not resting on their laurels.

M&M’s are still M&M’s, but they are also Peanut M&M’s and Peanut Butter M&M’s and Pretzel M&M’s and Thai Coconut M&M’s and pink Valentine M&M’s. They are whatever color or logo or image  of M&M’s you need. M&M’s has not held still – they have worked to stay relevant to a changing customer, have embraced customer involvement in product innovation, and have used new media and marketing techniques to connect and engage in cool new ways.

Developing each M&M color as its own character in the mid-1990s helped propel the brand into a position where they could engage with customers in new ways. These M&M characters breathed new life and a relateable personalities into a simple product, making the brand more than a candy product. Although they couldn’t anticipate it at the time, that move made it easier to create opportunities for customers to interact with the brand and create dialogue between brand and customer.

I’ll close with the Van Halen brown M&M’s story. It was considered an urban legend for so long, I checked Snopes to make sure it is true. It was discovered by media sources that Van Halen demanded concert venues provide M&M’s for pre- and post-show snacking. The caveat: the brown ones had to be removed. Failure to do this would invalidate the entire contract.

The narrative started as a story of rock star divas, until lead singer and bombastic personality David Lee Roth clarified, saying the M&M’s rider was a canary-in-the-coalmine test. If the brown M&M’s weren’t removed, Van Halen knew the venue didn’t pay attention to the details of the contract and something more important – and more life-threatening (think high voltage electricity, pyrotechnics and acrobatic wire acts) – could have also been overlooked. The band would encourage their road crew to double-check everything to ensure a safe show. M&M’s saves lives!

We are just a few weeks out from The Gathering. If you haven’t yet decided to join us, do so now. Not only will you hear from M&M’s Global Brand Director Nils Weigelt, but you will hear from and interact with many other amazing cult brands. Join us to hear more about what it takes to make your brand a cult brand!

Further Reading
Why We Exist
The North Face: Weathering the Competitive Storm for Over 50 Years
YETI: Built for the Outdoors. By Outdoorsmen.
 
FIX: Break the addictions that are killing brands
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