Mars Deserves Praise for Innovative Skittles Initiative

SkittlesEarly this week, candy maker Skittles rocked the media by giving over its entire home page to a list of Twitter postings labeled with the #skittles hash tag. The experiment initially provoked excitement, then doubt and finally alarm as pranksters used the opportunity to post all manner of negative and even obscene comments that had very little to do with the fruit candy.

As the volume of trash talk swelled, Mars Snackfood US pulled down the Twitter search page and replaced it with a Facebook profile. Today the site features a Wikipedia entry. Skittles’ branding consists of an overlay window that links to various references to the product in social media outposts. Basically, Mars reconfigured the brand’s website as a package of consumer-generated content.

A lot of people are trashing Mars for this bold experiment. “Disastrous” says Apryl Duncan on About.com. “Gimmicky” says VentureBeat. “Humiliating disaster” says SmartCompany. While some people are praising Mars for originality, the early consensus is that this campaign is not a good idea for the Skittles brand.

Bold Move

 

More skittles

I beg to differ. While Mars certainly could have better anticipated the frat-boy efforts to undermine the program, the Skittles experiment is a bold statement about where the company is taking its marketing tactics. Full disclosure: I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the Mars marketers on a paid basis over the past year. Unlike many other corporations I’ve encountered, these people get it. Sure, they’re still feeling their way through the process of working with uncensored customer conversations, but they’re on the right track and they’re taking the right risks.

 

In January, Mars held a day-long offsite meeting with more than 100 of its global marketers to talk about word-of-mouth marketing. I was there, along with many of the company’s agency and branding partners. I was impressed with the commitment the company is making to understanding and working with social media. While many of their peers still regard online forums with a mixture of suspicion and disgust, the Mars marketers see it as an opportunity. They’re also fully aware of the risks. One breakout session at the meeting was devoted almost entirely to an analysis of Johnson & Johnson’s Motrin Moms fiasco.

Still more SkittlesThere’s no question Mars could have thought through this experiment somewhat better. Twitter was a bad place to start and under the circumstances, some filtering would have been appropriate. However, the whole concept of giving over the Skittles Web presence to customer conversations is daring and innovative. It’s unfortunate that some of the same people who trash brands for not being more hip to social media are now trashing Mars for almost being too hip.

Proof in the Pudding

Also, look at the coverage this story has generated: The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Fast Company, CNET and the list goes on and on. If you believe Oscar Wilde’s theory that “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” then this campaign is a hit. If Skittles sales don’t jump 15% in the next month, I’ll eat a bag of the candy, including the bag.

Chevy TahoeExperimentation is central to new media marketing and negative reactions to bold ideas are nothing to be feared. Nearly three years ago, General Motors invited visitors to stitch together their own video ads for the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. About 15% of the videos people created were negative, prompting critics to call the campaign a disaster. But inside General Motors the project was considered an unqualified success. The Tahoe hit 30% market share shortly after the Web promotion began, outpacing its closest competitor two to one.

The Skittles campaign is outside-the-box thinking. Despite its shortcomings, it deserves praise.

8 thoughts on “Mars Deserves Praise for Innovative Skittles Initiative

  1. Paul, I couldn’t agree with you more. First, I absolutely expect at least a 15% jump in sales for Skittle this month, which supports Oscar Wilde’s theory (By the way, one of my favorite writers of all time). Beyond that though, I’m learning myself that it is going to be extremely important to get on this wave that is social media marketing. I’m starting a new project now, Careers Without Limits (Site and social media platform go live within the next two weeks), and found your blog while researching social media marketing strategies. I have no doubt that my strategy will be extremely fluid, and it may not go so well for a while, but to be on the sidelines spells certain doom… In my opinion.

  2. UGC has a venerable history – all the way back to testimonials. Marketers should in general be eliciting more not less customer input. Unfortunately all media and new media in particular are subject to SPAM. What’s curious about the Skittles experiment is that Mars didn’t moderate the input in a way that is common with blog comments.

    I hope Mars will not be distracted by all the noise in the Twittershpere and continue to experiment.

  3. When I go to this newfangled Skittles Web site, I get the following message: “Hold your horses. Before you can check out Skittles.com, you’ve gotta tell us your age. So spill it.”

    Uh, no thanks. How about not?

    Why on earth would Skittles REQUIRE that a Web visitor reveal my birthday (including the year)? I can only think it is good for them, but not for me.

    Skittles’ people may “get it, Paul — but I don’t get why I need to reveal personal information in order to read about candy.

  4. When I go to this newfangled Skittles Web site, I get the following message: “Hold your horses. Before you can check out Skittles.com, you’ve gotta tell us your age. So spill it.”

    Uh, no thanks. How about not?

    Why on earth would Skittles REQUIRE that a Web visitor reveal his/her birthday (including the year)? I can only think it is good for them, but not for me.

    Skittles’ people may “get it, Paul — but I don’t get why I need to reveal personal information in order to read about candy.

  5. Hi Paul. Please try to confirm that 15% jump? That would be extremely valuable information. When the Motrin Moms kerfluffle flared up, I posited on an internal discussion that it probably did not make a dent in Motrin sales for the quarter. Would love to be proved right or wrong on that one too. Thanks.

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