Few marketing campaigns captured the world’s imagination like Mars Inc’s 1995 initiative to replace the tan M&M’s with a new color chosen by the crowd. The colors of M&Ms had not changed since 1949, but M&Ms-Mars had been losing ground in the candy market to Hershey’s, which captured 35% of the market with brands like Hugs and Reese’s Nutrageous bar. Mars at the time controlled just 26% of the market.
Mars spent millions on the campaign, airing expensive TV commercials and sending people dressed up as M&Ms to travel the country and appear at the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, and the Los Angeles marathon.
But the campaign captured the audience’s imagination and reignited excitement for the candy. In the end over 10 million votes were cast in over 78 countries. Blue won, captured 54% of the vote (beating out pink and purple).
Why did using crowds work so well for M&Ms, and can other brands seek to replicate their success through similar campaigns?
First, M&Ms set strict boundaries for the parameters on which the audience could decide. They gave the crowd only 3 options to choose from (pink, purple, and blue), any one of which would have fit well aesthetically with the existing colors. Had M&Ms allowed the crowd to choose from 10 or 20 colors, or allowed them to submit their own color combinations, it would have been more difficult to reach consensus, a greater portion of customers would have voted for a “losing” color and been dissatisfied with the final outcome, and M&Ms could have ended up with a hard-to-produce or ugly color combination (e.g., imagine if the crowd had selected rainbow or camouflage as a color). By limiting the crowd’s options, M&Ms guaranteed it would end up with a workable solution.
Second, candy colors are a simple, tangible characteristic which the crowd can easily understand. It required no audience education. In contrast, complex or intangible products (e.g., technology, financial services) require greater investment in education of voters to align expectations and run a greater risk of voter dissatisfaction. By clearly advertising the exact shade of pink, purple and blue that were up for vote, M&Ms ensured its customers had aligned and accurate expectations, leaving no room for surprise when the blue M&Ms started turning up on store shelves.
Finally, what does this mean for other consumer product companies wishing to replicate M&M’s success? Let us take one example: Frito-Lays recently ran a campaign to crowd-source new flavors for its Lays brand potato chips. The finalists this year were Gyro, Truffle Fries, Biscuits and Gravy, and Reuben. The campaign has generated a lot of PR buzz; however, unlike the blue M&M which is still in M&M bags 20 years later, I predict the Lays winner (Biscuits and Gravy) will not last. The Do Us a Flavor campaign did not limit the crowd’s submissions in a way that would guarantee a tasty product. Instead, creative and complex, even outrageous submissions (e.g. “Frog” and “Regret”) were allowed to rise to the top. In addition, these complex flavors can vary widely in how they are executed (does anyone really know what a Gyro chip should taste like?). When customers voted for Biscuits and Gravy, did they imagine the flavor how Lays actually produced it, or did some want it saltier / gravy-er / more peppery?
If brands are seeking to use crowdsourcing to not only generate PR buzz but also create lasting, popular product change, they should take a page from M&M’s book, and keep it simple.
Sources: http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/M-M-s-Launching-New-Color-Campaign-Pink-3048849.php, http://childrenofthenineties.blogspot.com/2009/04/blue-m.html, http://laughingsquid.com/lays-potato-chips-crowdsources-new-flavor-ideas-the-internet-responds-with-some-ridiculous-entries/, http://kitchenette.jezebel.com/the-lays-do-us-a-flavor-finalists-this-year-are-hot-g-1718001791