Candy Superstars: M&M'S celebrate 75 colorful years

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The world of confections has its competitive nature, but 75 years ago Forest Mars, Sr. observed an interesting interaction among soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. Men were sitting and eating chocolate, but what was so intriguing was that they had dipped the chocolate into hard candy coating to keep it from melting in the heat during their travels. An idea was born and Forest Mars hurried off to gain a patent for this new presentation of candy-covered chocolates. A patent was granted to him on March 3, 1941. The stars were born: They would forever “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”

The multi-colored, button-shaped M&M’S® get their name from the family of Frank M. Mars and partner Bruce Murrie: Mars & Murrie. These tiny morsels of fun were originally packaged in cardboard tubes for sale; however, that all changed in March 1948 when Mars decided to package the candies in wrappers and eliminated the tubes. At birth, there were five colors: Brown, Red, Green, Yellow and Violet. The new packaging made it easier for the consumer to see the variety in colors. In 1950, Mars began stamping the candies with the trademarked lower-case “m” to distinguish them from lookalikes.

With constant attention to detail and innovation, the Mars chocolatiers created the next wave of M&M’S by using chocolate-covered peanuts with the hard candy shell, thus the beginning of Peanut M&M’S on Feb. 20, 1954. This was the first of many variations created throughout the 75-year history of the candy. Since then, Mars has produced M&M’S Peanut Butter, M&M’S Pretzel, M&M’S Crispy, M&M’S Almond and even M&M’S Dark Chocolate for the loyal fans of the brand, yet Plain and Peanut still rule the roost.

The color combinations started in 1941, yet they have experienced a number of additions and eliminations; for example, Red was once the most popular color, but was stopped in 1976 due to the dye amaranth (RED#2) used in many products. Not to fear, Orange was a quick replacement; hence, another star was born. Red did return in 1987. What few people know is that the Red M&M’S never contained the dye amaranth and Mars decided to stop the production of Red for fear of consumer backlash and public-relations fallout. The return of Red was led by a University of Tennessee (home of the Big Orange) student, Paul Hethman, as a joke. It would become a global spectacle. Violet was eliminated in 1949 and replaced with Tan, which was dropped in 1995 for the color Blue.

1980 saw a huge growth opportunity when Mars decided to take the M&M brand international. More than 400 million individual M&M’S are produced every day in the United States and distributed to more than 100 countries. It was January 1996 when M&M’S had its first size alteration, as mini M&M’S were born.

As M&M’S grew in stature, they began to take on a life of their own. Technology allowed the Mars Chocolate Company to create animated figures in 1997 and each color had a persona. The media production had huge success and the colors were given personality and life. The M&M’S brand reached a lovable status and not only served as a concessions staple in movie theatres but built a fondness for confections across all channels of business.

M&M’S ran an “mPire” promotion in association with the release of Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. M&M’S continued its partnership with cinemas in 2007, when M&M’S Mega were introduced in association with Shrek—who could forget “Ogre Sized M&M’S”? These candies were 65% larger than the original and produced in “swamp” colors.

M&M’S were also named “The Official Candy of the Millennium,” as MM is the Roman numeral for 2000. How lucky could one candy be?

Since 2002, the colors have been global in nature, and now M&M’S can be found in nearly any color a buyer chooses. Turquoise, Pink, Purple and Aqua can be produced for special events and weddings. Universities have M&M’S made in their school colors and sell them as loyalty programs and fundraisers. M&M’S even have themselves featured in NASCAR with drivers such as Kenny Schrader, Eliot Sadler and Kyle Busch chasing down the competitors and leading the way in the marketing campaign.

2016 will follow a similar direction for the M&M’S characters, as the brand will introduce three new flavor options, Coffee Nut, Honey Nut and Chili Nut, inviting all its fans to vote on a favorite new flavor. In addition, M&M’S has formed a partnership with Fox Studios where the colorful personalities will adorn the likes of X-Men Apocalypse, again collaborating with theatre operations and movie lovers. 

What few people know is that the Mars family could not have produced the M&M’S without a partnership with Hershey Chocolates. William Murrie, president and principal of Hershey Chocolates in 1941, owned a 20% share of the product and provided the milk chocolate Mars used to make the M&M’S. During World War II, chocolates were rationed and Hershey controlled the rights to rations; therefore, M&M’S would not have been created and produced if not for the Hershey Company and Murrie’s loyalty. This is evidence that while the world of confections is highly competitive, when a brand is personified the entire channel of business is more successful. Who knew the Spanish Civil War would create such a remarkable success story?