Blue M&Ms: Using Crowdsourcing to Re-invigorate a Brand

How M&Ms used the crowd to reinvigorate its brand through simple, tangible product change

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.

Pink, Purple, or Blue? You Decide (watch the commercial)

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.



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Student comments on Blue M&Ms: Using Crowdsourcing to Re-invigorate a Brand

  1. With these crowd-sourced flavor/color/etc campaigns, I am always a little skeptical of whether the boost in sales companies see is related to the crowdsourcing component or the additional resources placed in advertising. No doubt I think the idea of being able to choose a chip flavor or an MnM color can draw in customers to interact more with the brand than otherwise. However, I still would like to compare product performance data between these crowdsourcing campaigns and other successful ad campaigns of similar cost to see if the crowd-sourcing component truly does add value. Thanks for the post!

  2. Great post! I wonder if brands can use crowdsourcing to actually improve their products. Right now, it is a great way to generate temporary buzz, but how long does that actually last? I would be curious to know how much of a revenue difference these campaigns actually make. I get the sense that companies feel the need to repeat every so often to regain. If they could find a way to harness crowdsourcing to actually improve their product, perhaps that could result in better returns.

  3. I really appreciated your assessment of M&M’s strategy – In crowdsourcing campaigns, companies often make a tradeoff of control by relinquishing choice to the crowd. In M&M’s instance, they limited the choices and thus maintained a good deal of control in this market. That seems like a really good option for something like an incremental product change / promotion tactic. However, companies that want to truly innovate or adapt to consumer demands may need to open up their development more… perhaps not to Biscuit and Gravy Lays though – gross.

  4. This is fantastic! I didn’t even know that that’s how blue M&Ms ended up in my candy bag. I think it’s a great engagement strategy. I have to wonder though whether the difference with Frito Lays may be that Frito Lays is not necessarily looking to make a permanent change to its flavor portfolio? As such, they are ok with getting unlimited suggestions relative to M&Ms strategy of keeping it to strictly 3 colors. Might be a deliberate strategy choice. Great post though!

  5. I agree that this was a great strategy for updating their product – the limitation of choice makes it simple but also exciting and almost binary – sort of like the harmless, inoffensive version of the national election were everyone has an opinion. It think this is a great strategy for companies to use, as long as they’ve done the research to show that the consumer wants change…not that I think there’s a lot of tan M&M fans out there, but you want to make sure you’re not alienating part of your consumer base.

  6. Great post! Thanks for sharing. Like the other comments above, I had no clue that the blue M&M came from a crowd-sourced approach. It sounds like there was a tremendous investment: time, money, and resources, put behind this campaign. Clearly, the campaign was successful, but would be curious to hear whether you think the campaign would have led to same results if the company had spent that money on announcing a new color (or invested on other marketing tactics)?…

    My guess would be no. I do think the crowd-sourced approach stretched Mars’ investment further and was thus ultimately more successful than an alternative. The residual value of the “let’s ask our consumers” approach I *think* carried extra weight. Just an interesting question that your blog made me think of.

    Can’t wait to read your next post!

  7. Love this story – I remember when Mars did this! I’d be interested to know how, if at all, Mars maintained the buzz and interest around the M&Ms brand after this contest. It seems like a fantastic was to reinvigorate the brand and consumer interest in the short term, but inevitable, people forget about the campaign, forget about how the blue M&M ended up in their package, and move on to the next interesting topic. Would love to hear more about how a crowd sourcing contest like this fits into a longer term strategy.

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