They may be alluring in the candy aisle, but not all candy brands are finding a sweet spot online. M&M's has been the most aggressive in web marketing, launching several successful gaming or "activity" sites around the world. U.K.-based Cadbury engaged 154,000 users in May with its "Creme Egg Twisted" site, and Skittles created buzz when it redesigned its website as an unfiltered channel for Twitter feeds and Facebook riffs. But other brands, notably Nestle and Hershey's stable of candy, have been more muted, if not invisible.
Together, these companies' online campaigns reflect the ways in which brand perception is tied to gaming, movie tie-ins, video, and social media, and how these channels, in turn, help refine brand perception. Here are some profiles of recent candy campaigns that provide a lesson for companies both in and outside of this unique niche.
Manufactured by Mars Snackfood U.S., the M&M's brand had 283,000 unique visitors to its homepage in June, of which 87,000 visited its "Become an M&M" site, according to comScore. That site, launched a year ago, lets users choose from menus of facial features and accessories to create an M&M in their likeness.
"What is cool about the M&M's platform is it's making people connect themselves with the brand," says Jim Nichols, partner at Catalyst:SF in San Francisco. "It has interactivity, it allows personalization (you're becoming the brand as well as influencing it), and it doesn't take a long time to learn how to use it."
Mars has invested heavily in the characterization of the different M&M's colors. For example, "Red" and "Yellow" are featured on a game site launched by the brand in May to tie in with the debut of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." On that site, users track down Transformers-related content hidden on various websites, including the M&M's Facebook fan site. The tie-in promotes the notion of M&M's "as a unique staple within the movie-viewing experience," says Mars spokesperson Ryan Bowling
Benjamin J. Weisman, digital director at iris n.y., says the "Transformers" site works well for M&M's. "Candy brands are perceived by the public as edgy, more about excitement and entertainment, and tied in to the movie theater experience," he says. "Looking at those criteria, and treating themselves as an entertainment property, makes it easier for candy brands to be integrated into social media."
Similarly, an M&M's Canadian site launched earlier this year promoted the brand's mini chocolate eggs by recreating an Easter egg hunt on the web. PIN numbers were hidden on the homepage and on various sites, including Craigslist. Users decoded the numbers to accumulate points and win prizes. Created by New York-based digital agency Firstborn, the site featured custom animation and used 3-D models of the Red and Yellow M&M's characters to fit with Mars' exact specifications.
The detailed design, which included an additional four simple-to-play games on the main site and four sub-sites with more hidden PIN codes, helped recreate the excitement of a real Easter egg hunt, says Dan LaCivita, senior vice president and executive director of Firstborn. "We wanted to get as close to that emotion as possible," he says.
Aimed at grocery-shopping moms, the site attracted approximately 40,000 registered users, with an average playing time of 11 minutes, according to Jonathan Webber, associate creative director of BBDO Canada, which oversaw the campaign. "The more beautiful the experience, the more engaging it will be," he says, adding that an Easter campaign is challenging because all candy brands are putting out specialty chocolates. He says an online game was a good fit for M&M's because the "brand has always been about fun."
Nevertheless, Nichols says packaged goods sites that feature games may find it tough to attract consumers. "The challenge is that you have to be as good at creating games as game developers are," he says. At the same time, pouring money into a site may not be the answer. "I think the bar is raising on fun, but not necessarily on production values," Nichols explains. "Production values are great, but a fun, simple two-dimensional game is going to beat out a photo-realistic game that's kind of boring."
Launched this spring, Cadbury's "Creme Egg Twisted" campaign invited fans to search for missing bars of a new year-round confection based on the brand's seasonal chocolate Creme Egg. Users were asked to take photos, upload videos, and send tweets as evidence of their hunt.
The "agent" judged most creative by Cadbury received a cash prize. The Cadbury site lists 10,425 agents as having registered, but it attracted many times that number in unique visits -- 154,000 in May, according to comScore.
Weisman says that games such as this -- ones that are experiential and gather participants together via a social network -- represent the kind of marketing that packaged goods companies will be using more in the future. "There will be more focus on ARGs (alternate reality games) and more immersive experiences," he says.
Greg O'Neal, senior account director at Razorfish, says many users also want to showcase themselves. "That's an insight we bring to a lot of our gaming and our content," he says. "If you can allow people to create, show off, and then be rewarded, that is an important way we can assess whether an idea has the chance to be good or not."
The Switzerland-based Nestle conglomerate's current online candy marketing efforts are limited to a sponsorship by its Butterfinger brand on Yahoo's video channel and a promotional site for the candy bar, FollowTheFinger.com.
Butterfinger also runs promotions on its Facebook page -- including a summer contest for a job as a viral marketer earning $1,000 and a year's supply of the candy. O'Neal says tactics like that can either effectively engage fans or turn them off.
"People don't want you to glom on to the social space they're using and insert yourself clumsily into the space," O'Neal says. "The best thing you can do as a brand is try to facilitate what they are trying to do, try to figure out what that might be, and then start to participate with them."
O'Neal suggests offering different kinds of content for the "talkers" in the social space to discuss and pass along. "If a brand does this successfully, all it has to do is update its Facebook status or Twitter post to let people know about the next interesting thing they are doing," he says. "This becomes a very cost effective way to re-engage and re-market to folks."
A spokeswoman for Ogilvy New York said a new campaign for unspecified Nestle brands will roll out in early August.
Although Hershey's brands have not individually made much of a blip online, the home site at Hersheys.com -- which includes recipes and customized gifts -- sweeps other brands in user traffic. In June alone, the site had 450,000 unique visitors, according to comScore, and holiday spikes can push it closer to 1 million.
The most recent online campaign for a Hershey's brand is a "Night at the Museum" tie-in site featuring the company's chocolate Kisses. Although an animated Kiss walks the user through some movie-inspired scenes, the site offers limited interactivity and is more of a promotional platform for a prize giveaway.
"'Gametivities' like this can drive site traffic, which isn't easy for candy. No one needs to visit a Kisses site," says Catalyst:SF's Nichols. "The challenge is ensuring that tie-ins do more than drive traffic, because you want them to rub off on the brand, and the studio wants them to rub off on the movie."
Starburst agency Digitas has concentrated on creating ironic video ads for the Mars Snackfood U.S.-owned brand's "Pack of Contradictions" campaign. Distributed on YouTube, the ads feature contradictory characters like a kilt-wearing Korean with a Scottish accent.
Video can attract a lot of eyeballs, says Razorfish's O'Neal, especially when marketers develop original, entertaining content or help people generate their own. But gaming may be a sounder investment. "The amount of time people are spending engaging with video is increasing, but video is inherently passive," he says.
Nichols agrees. He says that gaming demands more concentration from the user and therefore helps keep the brand memorable. "I prefer interactivity, because you're getting the consumer to futz with your brand," Nichols says. "You have to get people to interact with your content. Making videos and hoping people will watch them is a crapshoot."
Skittles, another brand owned by Mars Snackfood U.S., took a novel -- and now infamous -- approach this spring toward consumer-created content by redesigning its website as an unfiltered channel for Skittles-related Twitter feeds, Flickr photos, Facebook fans, and YouTube videos.
Although the brand shot to the top of Twitter's trending topics a few days after the redesign launched, it also became the target of pranksters and marketing opportunists discussing unrelated products. "The question you always have to ask as marketers is what value are you bringing to the table? What is Skittles providing people other than just showing them what people are saying about their brand?" O'Neal says.
The buzz has declined since the site's traffic high of 78,000 users in April. Current traffic is back to pre-redesign figures of approximately 19,000 unique users per month, according to comScore. But Weisman says Skittles has managed to underscore a perception that they are "edgy and on the cusp." He adds, "It's easy for candy brands to fulfill that expectation because they're associated with sugar, with a rush."
Mira Schwirtz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer covering the culture and business of technology.
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