As you read this, M&M's—the best-selling candy in America, the treat that Mars makes 400 million of every day, and the milk chocolate that melts in your mouth and not in your hand—is marking its 75th birthday. More on that in a moment. First, a quiz: Name the two forces that were instrumental to the invention of M&M's.
Answer: the month of June and the Second World War.
We should explain. In 1941, confectioner Forrest Mars was searching for a solution to the sales slump that hit the family business every summer. In the era before air-conditioning, chocolate bars melted in the heat, so Americans stopped buying them. Mars' solution was to invent a new chocolate treat encased in a candy shell. With wartime rationing on the horizon, he also partnered with William Murrie of Hershey's to ensure a steady supply of chocolate. Mars' and Murrie's new candy took its name from its partners' initials: M&M's.
The candy coating was a good thing—and so, as things turned out, was WWII. In search of quick, portable calories, Uncle Sam discovered M&M's and dropped them into every soldier's C rations. By war's end, the candy had millions of loyal customers.
In fact, it still does. But the sweets business is a competitive one. So how has a simple treat like M&M's prospered for so long? According to Berta De Pablos-Barbier, Mars' North American vp of marketing, the answer is, well, marketing. "M&M's is a brand that's always adapted to the trends of the times," she said, "adopting variations to keep the consumer interested."
For example, M&M's added a peanut variety as early as 1954, and this year, peanut M&M's will adopt a new flavor chosen by an online vote. Mars has also varied the color lineup. When it discontinued tan in 1995, blue took its place after 11 million Americans (and this was before the Internet) voted.
Then there are the "Spokescandies." Anthropomorphic M&M's appeared as early as the mid-1950s in a TV spot, but the characters were goofy and vacuous. That changed in 1995 when BBDO redrew the characters and gave them human personalities: excitable, sarcastic and even sexual. ("My shell is brown," vamped Ms. Brown on her debut. "It just looks like my chocolate is showing.")
Finally, there's that song. For years, M&M's used various retreads of the Willy Wonka "Candy Man" theme. But for the 75th anniversary, it commissioned Aloe Blacc and EDM star Zedd to record a new version. Despite being 75, M&M's isn't looking back. Pablos-Barbier said, "We're setting up the beginning of the next 75 years."
This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.