Mars hopes to capitalize on the demand for higher priced chocolate. Premium chocolate sales grew 17.8 percent for the year ended June 14, compared with 1.4 percent for nonpremium chocolate, according to the Nielsen Company. (The figures are for United States food, drug, and mass-merchandise stores, excluding Wal-Mart).
But some people who have tasted the product and blogged about it were unnerved by the new formulation.
"So what is this new covering?" wrote the reviewer Cybele on Candyblog. "It’s not exactly flavored, but dissolves quickly, but into rather unappealing waxy flakes."
Reviewers for The Onion’s A.V. Club supplement wrote, "It’s richer and more crumbly (almost chalky in texture — though not taste), not the firm stuff in its cheaper siblings." But "once you get over the texture shock, M&M’s Premiums are generally pretty tasty."
Ms. Kessler said she was not concerned about moving too far from the main M&M’s product.
"They’re still lentils, they still have the ‘M’ on them," she said. "They’re certainly colorful in a different way, but in a more premium way that reinforces what the product brings."
The brand has been successful in adding new products, said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a consultancy to the food industry. "M&M’s has incredible equity, and they seem to be able to extend it in lots of different ways, shapes, sizes, colors, even a little bit in the flavor arena," he said.
"This is not a great environment to launch premium anything," he said, but "I’d give it a fighting chance."
The full-blown introduction of M&M’s Premium is also a departure for the brand.
Recently, M&M’s introduced products tentatively, either by offering limited-edition candies or by using a movie tie-in as a popularity test. A larger-than-normal M&M was introduced in tandem with "Shrek 2," and dark chocolate M&M’s along with "Star Wars Episode III, Revenge of the Sith."
"Then, when those products do well, we decide if they should be mass-marketed," Ms. Credle of BBDO said. (Dark chocolate M&M’s are now available nationally; the large M&M’s got national distribution but have been discontinued.) But with the premium line, Mars is going all in from the start.
"We’re going in as a permanent product, and we’re putting a lot of marketing muscle behind it," Mr. Bowling said.
Even in a sour economy, some premium products can sell well, said Mary Egan, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group. "There’s certainly going to be an initial trial, because people love the M&M’s brand and there’s such a strong market for premium chocolate," she said.