How to Make a Brand Relevant to Gen Z – Investis Digital

How does a 100-year-old brand court a younger generation of consumers? Gabrielle Wesley, Chief Marketing Officer of Mars Wrigley North America, explains how.

How does a 100-year-old brand court a younger generation of consumers? This was the theme of a captivating presentation by Gabrielle Wesley, Chief Marketing Officer of Mars Wrigley North America, at the recent ANA Masters of Marketing conference. Wesley provided some concrete examples from the company’s huge stable of brands, and they all had one thing in common: cultural relevance.


About Mars Wrigley

Wesley set the stage by giving everyone at the event a brief primer on this iconic company. Famed for its rich history and a diverse range of products, Mars Wrigley is a household name with humble beginnings dating back to 1911. From sweet treats to pet nutrition, the brand’s journey over the years is a testament to its adaptability amidst changing consumer landscapes. One of its flagship brands – M&Ms – celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2024! The hallmark of Mars Wrigley lies in its commitment to innovation, aiming to foster moments of joy while staying tuned to consumer inclinations.

The brand’s ethos is rooted in a profound understanding of culture, striving to be at the front of societal trends to win over the hearts of the next generation of snack aficionados. During her talk, Wesley gave examples of how the company is doing so with the all-important (and increasingly influential) Gen Z demographic:


Refreshing a Brand: M&Ms

Mars Wrigley has been hard at work making M&Ms relevant to a generation that believes everyone feels they belong. The cornerstone of this approach: reimagining the beloved “spokescandies’ – the animated characters personifying the colorful chocolates. By evolving their looks and personalities to mirror the diverse fabric of today’s society, M&Ms has cast a wider net of relatability. A simple yet impactful switch from heels to sneakers for one of the spokescandies, for instance, ignited a massive online buzz, underscoring the power of authentic self-expression. This creative pivot not only rejuvenated the brand’s image but also provided a gateway to delve into deeper conversations about purpose and inclusivity.

The unveiling of Purple, a new spokescandy embodying earnest self-expression, was a strategic maneuver to resonate with Gen Z societal norms. Despite differing opinions, this initiative was lauded for its relevance and significantly bolstered M&M’s standing among Gen Z consumers, creating a ripple of positive impressions across the digital realm.

The reintroduction of the spokescandies also involved a creative approach to Super Bowl advertising. The spokescandies took a brief hiatus from social media, only to make a triumphant return during Super Bowl 57. This narrative arc saw Orange morphing into a meditative content host and Blue turning into a sports commentator, portraying a broader spectrum of interests and personalities. The Super Bowl stint not only created a momentous lift in brand engagement but also clinched a historic Cannes Lions award, marking a monumental chapter in M&M’s brand journey.

She explained that amidst the whirlpool of digital chatter, M&Ms remained steadfast in its mission to deliver joy, laughter, and entertainment. By continually elevating its cultural relevance, the brand has successfully carved a niche of endearment among a broader audience.

The journey of M&Ms is a testament to the profound impact of aligning brand values with evolving societal narratives, showcasing a robust blueprint for brands navigating the challenging waters of modern-day marketing. Through a lens of creativity and a pulse on cultural nuances, M&Ms has not only preserved its iconic status but has soared to new heights of consumer affinity and engagement.


Being in the Moment: Skittles

A brand’s agility in responding to unforeseen circumstances can often craft a narrative that resonates far and wide – and in ways that create cultural relevance. Skittles, known for its quirky and unconventional advertising, showcased a stellar example of such nimble responsiveness during a rather colorful encounter with pop icon Harry Styles.

At a concert in Los Angeles, pop star Harry Styles found himself at the receiving end of a Skittle thrown from the crowd, hitting him in the eye. The incident quickly caught fire on the internet, with fans showering social media with angry tags directed at Skittles. In a world where brand interactions are continually under the digital microscope, the candy brand found itself in a spotlight that required a swift and savvy response.

Skittles (BTW the second most mentioned brand in song lyrics following M&Ms), recognized an organic opportunity to not just mitigate the brewing storm but to redirect the conversation positively. The brand swiftly rolled out a cheeky yet supportive ad campaign with the slogans “Protect the Rainbow. Taste the Rainbow. But please – don’t throw the rainbow.” This clever play on words not only showcased support for Harry Styles but also underscored the brand’s playful essence.

The ad campaign received an outpouring of positivity, and in a twist of fate, what began as a prickly situation morphed into a wave of goodwill towards Skittles. The incident highlighted that with a dash of creativity and a pulse on consumer sentiment, brands could indeed turn potentially adverse situations into powerful engagements.

By promptly addressing the incident with humor and a supportive stance, Skittles managed not only to defuse a volatile situation but also to lead the narrative. The ripple effect of this swift action reiterated the brand’s whimsical persona and showcased a profound understanding of the dynamics between brands, celebrities, and the digital audience.


Creating Experiences: Snickers

Mars also looks for ways to create in-person experiences (after all, Gen Z likes to spend money as much on experiences as they do on material things). Accordingly, creating authentic and memorable experiences is emerging as a powerful strategy to win hearts. Wesley noted that global icons like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who create immersive experiences with their concerts, have contributed significantly to the U.S. economy.

The magic lies in creating moments that resonate. For example, Snickers has effectively tapped into the realm of sports via its relationship with the NFL. An example of this synergy is the collaboration with Number One Draft Pick, Bryce Young. In a bold move, Snickers introduced a limited edition “Bryce Cream Bar,” showcasing a blend of culture, sports, and the brand. This initiative was more than just a product launch; it was a testament to Snickers’ agility and ability to lean into cultural trends. The brand amplified the experience by engaging directly with NFL players at training camps, handing out bars, and establishing a tangible connection between the brand, the sport, and the athletes.


Being Authentic: 5 Gum

Wesley noted that Gen Z prefers authenticity to perfection, and 5 Gum has responded with interesting brand activations that rely on authenticity, an example being 5 Gum’s relationship with YUNGBLUD.

YUNGBLUD is a British singer-songwriter known for his rebellious and outspoken music, which often tackles social and political issues.

In 2023, 5 Gum partnered with YUNGBLUD to create the “Masterpieces” campaign, which featured a line of luxury jewelry containing pieces of gum that had been chewed by YUNGBLUD. The campaign was designed to celebrate the unique and authentic expressions of individuality that both YUNGBLUD and 5 Gum represent.

The Masterpieces collection included 15 necklaces, each of which was handcrafted by jeweler Greg Yuna and featured a piece of YUNGBLUD’s chewed gum encased in Lucite. The pendants were also encrusted with white diamonds and featured a charm engraved with the 5 Gum logo and Yuna’s signature stamp.

The Masterpieces campaign was a creative and innovative way for 5 Gum to connect with its target audience of young people who are looking for brands that are authentic and bold. It also helped to position YUNGBLUD as a fashion icon and to introduce his music to a wider audience.

In addition to the Masterpieces campaign, 5 Gum has also sponsored YUNGBLUD’s record store tour and featured him in its marketing campaigns. This partnership has helped to raise the profile of both brands and to reach a new generation of consumers.

Wesley said that the 5 Gum and YUNGBLUD brand relationship is a successful one that is based on shared values and a mutual desire to connect with young people. The partnership has helped both brands to achieve their marketing goals and to build a strong following among consumers.


Shaping Culture

Wesley wrapped up by concluding that to shape culture, you need to be part of culture. Sometimes that means being strategic and deliberate. Somethings it means being nimble and creating a conversation that creates value. Sometimes it means, in her words, being a little weird. And why not?

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