Mars Takes M&M’s Out of Their Shell

M&M’s may be an old brand, but it is not afraid to try new things. In recent years there have been several modern takes on the classic candy from 1941, including limited-edition flavors (cherry, mint crisp and raspberry), packages of all-green M&M’s, and M&M’s with customized messages and images that people can order through a Web site.

But the latest innovation, M&M’s Premiums, is a bigger departure. Mars Snackfood, which makes the candy, has changed not just one aspect of the M&M’s, but everything from the formulation to the packaging, price and flavor.

"We’ve actually changed the recipe of M&M’s as America and the world knows it," said Ryan Bowling, a spokesman for Mars Snackfood U.S. "This is a whole new recipe, both visually and to its taste as well."


The candies themselves are fatter and less uniform than traditional M&M’s. More radically, these M&M’s have no candy shell — just a shiny topcoat with a marbleized, almost metallic-looking finish in bright colors.

There are five flavors — mint chocolate, mocha, triple chocolate, raspberry almond and chocolate almond — sold in a 6-ounce package for $3.99. Instead of lying in a rectangular brown bag, M&M’s Premiums sit in an upright cardboard box with a clear window that shows off the candy.

M&M’s Premiums are already on store shelves, distributed to outlets where M&M’s are sold, including convenience stores, supermarkets and mass chains like Target and Wal-Mart.

Television spots will begin next week on major networks and channels like the Food Channel, AMC and the Hallmark Channel.

"Even just seeing one color of an M&M helps say, ooh that’s something different," said Susan Credle, executive creative director at BBDO New York, which handles M&M’s advertising.

At first, the television ads that BBDO, part of the Omnicom Group, devised took the premium element very seriously.

"Some of the first creative I saw was very serious and indulgent, and treated the product like this very rich new M&M thing," Ms. Credle said.

But she believed that M&M’s candy was supposed to be fun. She revised the ads so that they parodied typical premium chocolate ads, and brought in a character — a sexy green M&M — that had been used in much of the traditional M&M’s advertising.

"My fear was, I didn’t want to do just the product shot, and be devoid of the humor and fun of the brand," she said.

In the first commercial, which features the triple chocolate flavor, a woman’s voice talks about the candy in sensuous tones. Meanwhile, the green spokes-candy struts around the set, placing the candies on her lips, lounging on purple sheets, and tossing handfuls of candy at the camera.

At the end of the spot, the green candy breaks character. "Are we good?" she asks a camera crew, played by red, yellow and blue M&M’s. Transfixed by her sultry moves, the male candies can barely speak.

The hope in making the commercial, Ms. Credle said, was that viewers would start to wonder, just before the green candy’s outburst, " ‘Is this a serious commercial or is it supposed to be funny?’ We assure you it’s funny. No, we are not taking ourselves this seriously."

The print ads, meanwhile, show the various flavors of candies assembled into shapes like mint leaves or coffee beans. They will appear in publications aimed at women, like Better Homes and Gardens, InStyle and Martha Stewart Living.

M&M’s is also tying in samplings and a public relations campaign, including an event at New York Fashion Week in September. It hopes to attract a young, fashion-conscious consumer to the product, which is slightly more expensive than normal M&M’s and does not have the same mouth feel.

Both distinctions are quite deliberate.

"We found that premium chocolate lovers want the smooth, creamy taste to be the first thing they taste in a chocolate product, so the smooth shell of M&M’s Premiums enables them to taste the chocolate first," said Michele Kessler, vice president for marketing at Mars Snackfood.

The Mars research and development team came up with a new manufacturing technique to make the shell, she said. And some ingredients are different, so the candy can accept the shimmering finishes and exotic flavors.

Still shaped like "lentils"

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.