Early 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.
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.
There’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.
Experimentation 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.