Problem Solving: How M&Ms Took a Small Insight and Turned It Into a Big Idea

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Credit: Courtesy Mars

The Insight

M&Ms' 75th anniversary marketing campaign was sparked by a human resources presentation.

Berta de Pablos-Barbier, VP-marketing of Mars Chocolate North America
Berta de Pablos-Barbier, VP-marketing of Mars Chocolate North America Credit: Diane Bondareff/Invision for M&Ms

When Berta de Pablos-Barbier returned to Mars as VP-marketing of Mars Chocolate North America in February 2015 after years in the fashion industry, she spotted a slide during orientation showing that M&Ms debuted in 1941. The realization that the 75th anniversary was coming fueled a campaign that helped M&Ms grow eight times faster than the U.S. chocolate category and increase household penetration in 2016 after three years of declines. U.S. sales climbed 3% to $1.62 billion, according to Nielsen data shared by Mars. Here's a look at how M&Ms focused on a simple idea with a new way of thinking.

The Idea

It started with an easy-to-understand brief for the "Celebrate with M" campaign. "This is the simplest brief I've ever written, and it was giving a lot of freedom to whoever we were working with to actually express how they would celebrate with M," she said.

Rather than focus on the exact 75th anniversary, March 3, or on one product attribute or historical detail, the campaign also hit different notes throughout the year. "We started the other way around. We started digital-first versus TV-first; we actually focused a lot on cultural integration; and we allowed ourselves to have some creative freedom to make sure that we met our creative ambitions," she said.

The first element was Zedd and Aloe Blacc's update of the Sammy Davis Jr. song "The Candy Man" from 1972, adapted to an online "Candyman" video and a 30-second commercial from BBDO New York. Retro-style packaging was designed for stores.

To create excitement, the confectioner brought three new flavors to stores—Chili Nut, Honey Nut and Coffee Nut—and asked consumers to vote to find a new limited-edition flavor. Retailers gave M&Ms extra display space based on the idea, Ms. de Pablos-Barbier said. Coffee Nut was declared the winner after more than 1 million votes were cast.

What They Learned

"We have had tremendous success building a brand using traditional advertising," she said, but "the world is changing. Consumers are consuming communication and content in a completely different way, so making sure that we are part of that journey with our fans was something that was not obvious when we first started."

The anniversary was "the perfect excuse to start doing things differently," Ms. de Pablos-Barbier said. "What I wanted was to change the way we're building the M&Ms brand for the future."

And thinking in a new way gave the group a creative push. "Something that I learned through this is that people just need some help to liberate what is inside them."

What's Next

"What we are doing is creating creative projects for people that want to work with the brand" for 2017, said Ms. de Pablos-Barbier, who was hesitant to share too many details. "You are going to see us in places you've never seen us before," she added, such as a project set to be shown during Men's Fashion Week.

The idea of doing creative work with a "digital first" philosophy will also continue.

"User-generated content is going to be very predominant in our communication in 2017," she said, hinting that a user-generated commercial is in the works for the first part of the year. There is also a major product launch near the middle of the year to help propel the brand. Caramel M&Ms will debut in bright blue bags in May.

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