In January this year, Mars, the makers of M & M, announced they were redesigning their M & M's for a more progressive and inclusive world.
The change includes:
Mars hopes the change will show the importance of self-expression and community .
Is this "wokeness" gone rogue? A cynical attempt by a chocolate company to appear concerned about social issues while always keeping their eye on the bottom-line profit.
Forbes recently interviewed Gary Vaynerchuk, who, when asked why brands do not scale up, stated it was because the brand leaders are driven by the short term money cycle. While Mars has built its brand over the years, is it at risk of taking short-term decisions for financial gain rather than more challenging decisions to consolidate and further develop its brand?
The term "woke" was first used in the 1940s as a political term by Black Americans to refer to social and racial justice issues. It has now been plagiarized and used by many on social media to denote political correctness and extremism.
Is Mars being politically correct or "woke" with its redesign of M & M's, and does it matter? As many people commented when Mars made the announcement – "who cares? They are still going to end up in my stomach!"
Gary V, in his interview, has strong comments about the hypocrisy of people who take positions on topics because it makes them feel better while using those positions to cancel out or ignore the humanity and the real-life situation of others.
For example, we may march in solidarity with "Black Lives Matter", but what do we do about the ongoing higher incarceration rates for Aboriginal teenagers as against Caucasian teenagers? Or the increasing numbers of Aboriginal children who are removed from their parents? We may protest the human rights abuses in China or Myanmar but ignore the federal government's human rights abuses of refugees.
One of the downsides of social media is the simplification of complex issues. This simplification results in black and white thinking about subjects that are often multiple shades of grey. Taking a position usually allows us to feel we are doing something, that we are contributing.
This desire to contribute is worthy, but where our position closes us off from the complexity and diversity of issues, we risk acting out of the shadow side of our desire to contribute. The shadow side is often seen when we contribute to the suppression or disadvantage of someone who holds or is opposite to what we believe is correct. The other aspect of the shadow is virtue signalling.
In the end, does it matter what Mars did in January in rebranding M & M's? Who cares? It is easy to shrug our shoulders, raise an eyebrow and move on; however, we believe it matters for two reasons.
The integrity of brands
Brands must act with integrity and honesty. At the beginning of the pandemic, businesses were trusted more than politicians. We know it can be fatal to a brand when they lose the market's trust, for example, Volkswagen with their carbon emissions.
The risk for Mars is the perception by consumers that the change was a cheap stunt rather than driven by integrity and authenticity. As one respondent said:
"Just make and sell the candy, stay out of the politics. Don't be surprised when people quit buying your product because of these types of business decisions".
From a cynical perspective, Mars has taken an area of social concern, simplified it to the lowest possible denominator, an M & M and will continue profit from the sale of M & M's. It has cost the organisation nothing. If Mars were concerned about supporting a more inclusive society and recognising the empowerment of women or the issues of anxiety, they could have taken other actions. For example, donating the profits from the sales of M & M's for nine months to mental health services that deal with anxiety or donations to services that deal with domestic violence and women's empowerment would have been viewed as having more integrity and authenticity than simply rebranding.
When brands do not act with integrity and authenticity, there is a gradual erosion of trust and confidence that is often not initially seen but does have a long-term impact, as we see in the political field.
Reduction of complexity
The second thing Mars has done with their announcement reduces the complexity of the mental health issue of anxiety or the issues of domestic violence and the disenfranchisement of women.
Their brand experts undoubtedly look back on the January announcement with a sense of satisfaction; they have done something worthwhile and contributed to community awareness. But how does an M & M with tied shoelaces assist the young teenage boy who has to tie his shoelaces 15 or 20 times in the morning because he is so anxious, he has a set ritual he must follow. Or the teenage girl who is so nervous she has picked sores in her arm.
How does changing boots to sneakers to demonstrate female empowerment assist the woman locked in her house every day when her husband goes out to work because he is so controlling and abusive.
The action by Mars in January is an insult to the lived experience of many people who are disadvantaged, disempowered, and are made invisible by brands glorifying their version of community.
We have written in previous articles of a Brand's responsibility to the broader community in which they operate. This responsibility must be exercised with sensitivity and awareness of the complexity of issues, integrity and authenticity, and not simply stunts that do not provide the means to solutions.