Debra Sandler, Chief Consumer Officer, Mars Chocolate North America

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The 66-year history of M&M's is full of big moments.

There was the 1941 introduction to American soldiers serving in World War II. In 1954, the "melts in your mouth, not in your hands" tagline was born. The candies hit a high in 1982, rocketing into space for the first of many shuttle missions. In 2004, personalized M&M's came on board.

Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer, Mars Chocolate North America
Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer, Mars Chocolate North America
This year might be remembered as the year of the pretzel.

In a salty-sweet combo, M&M's Pretzel Chocolate Candies debuted in May, and their instant popularity has helped candy giant Mars post impressive sales gains for the M&M's brand.

Sales of small and large bags of all varieties jumped by more than 12% the year ended Oct. 3, with total combined sales of $708 million, solidifying the brand's place as the top seller in the chocolate candy category, according to Symphony IRI.

Mars, a private company, declined to disclose sales numbers for the pretzel version, but said that the new variety is beating expectations by 50%.

"It's a blockbuster product for us," said Debra Sandler, chief consumer officer for Mars Chocolate North America. "The biggest challenge is keeping it stocked on the shelves. "

The ad campaign by Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, makes use of a technique M&M's has been using since 1954, when it first made the cute, little M&M's characters the stars of a TV ad. Orange, which made its debut in 1976, is the "official spokescandy" for pretzel. In one ad, he is nervous about them "putting a giant pretzel inside me."

Although it's a pretty basic combination -- and one that's been around for years -- mixing chocolate and pretzel in an M&M's was conceived only after extensive research, Ms. Sandler said. "This is firmly rooted in consumer insight," she said. "It's something we cooked up after we talked to consumers."

And it's also an example of how a venerable brand has remained relevant through innovation.

"They've certainly kept the brand alive and fresh," said Randy Hofberger, a Wisconsin-based candy consultant. "They seem to be modern and that always helps a lot."

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