The M&Ms rebrand launched last week to much controversy and a fascinating array of opinions across the industry about how gender is represented in modern culture. As both brand and candy connoisseurs, Cait Russell and Brandi Parker discuss their reactions to the move, their own experiences of gender, some drag queens, and the opportunities for brands to lead the charge when it comes to representing gender in branding. 

[Brandi]

When the controversy started around M&M’s, I ignored it at first. I really didn’t pay much attention to the rebranded, personified candies, because I’d never really paid attention to them in the first place. 

[Cait]

For better or worse, that’s the wizardry of branding. M&M’s created the “spokescandies” we know in the early 90s, introducing an ensemble of characters alongside BBDO to establish a stand-out personality in an increasingly crowded candy category. Branding has evolved beyond purely unique selling propositions, to include unmistakable brand personalities. In M&M’s case, six personalities that together represent the brand. Personalities strong enough to make people forget that these are in fact…just candies. 

[B]

What’s been interesting to follow, though, is how fired up people are getting on all sides of the issue around the perceived de-sexualizing of Green. Gender as a topic has been a hot chat at the table now for a few years, but I’ve been thoroughly entertained and slightly annoyed that it’s taken a candy to really dig into this subject. 

[C]

Brands are, in a lot of ways, mirrors to what’s happening in culture. The best brands proactively change to meet people’s beliefs, behaviors and values. We know that M&M’s and Mars saw a shift in how society perceives and represents gender. So they came for the green M&M’s heels. But we have an increasing brand-savvy consumer who is asking “why?” in all the right ways. 

[B]

I’m actually shocked at the disparate kinds of arguments from various sides— the “about time” argument, citing heels as oppressive, cueing a kind of ‘sluttiness;’ the “shoes don’t make the gal” argument and so on— some of which are hard to disagree with, even if they oppose each other. 

[C]

This nailed it for me [favorite tweet]

Why do we think heels are the problem?  As an artifact of culture, heels have come to represent more than femininity—they also represent power, sexuality and self-expression. They’re rocked by men and women alike. Does robbing the green M&M of heels show we’ve moved beyond oppressive symbols of femininity? Does it hint at our own discomfort with unapologetic female sexuality? Or should we be asking ourselves: Does any of this really matter? 

Instead of seeing the green M&M as a woman whose wardrobe needs to be “fixed,” could we see the green M&M for what it actually is…..just an M&M in heels. Is removing a pair of CGI heels truly going to move the needle on inclusivity or fair representation?

[B]

I agree that it won’t necessarily move a needle, but isn’t it interesting that we are sitting here talking about some be-heeled candies, though? I do love that something so ridiculous has started this dialogue. In some ways, I think it could have been required to start such a dialogue— don’t make it personal, or even about a human— make it about an abstract personification of gender, in this case, a candy. Maybe then we can really discuss the issue at its core, shaking off some assumptions because it’s less about a particular person.

I’ve been reading this awesome book about mindful design, and in it, the author, Kelly Small highlights how social activism absolutely is affected by and has a place in design. Most importantly, the author sheds light on some seriously deep-rooted biases this industry has in particular, to shake off:

Excerpt from “The Conscious Creative, Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work” by Kelly Small.

“The truth is that discourse in the creative industries have been largely dominated by cisheteropatriarchal Anglocentric/Eurocentric ways of knowing, seeing, and acting in the world. In other words, the groups of practitioners talking about design, architecture, tech and the like have been pretty homogenous— cisgender, straight, male and white. As a conscious creative, it’s crucial to get real with ourselves and see beyond Western perspectives. Let’s actively seek to expand the richness of knowledge that influences our work.”

[C]

I identify as a female-bodied, heterosexual white woman. Our industry is full to the brim with my perspective. So I see it as my job to bring in different voices, to invite richer co-creation into our research, concepting and design. By involving a diversity of consumers and creators we can make sure the male, heteronormative, white perspective is not the loudest voice at the table. 

This becomes necessary when we think about how women have been talked-to instead of given a voice and often misrepresented in the work of branding and design. 

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, the authors of Brandsplaining argue that despite women’s progress in many parts of society, advertisements still consistently cast women as secondary. “The majority of brands still speak to women from a male perspective, explaining to them what they are and telling them what they can be,” they write. The same is true for design.

We may have moved beyond the “good girl” narrative to a “go girl” anthem, but the problem persists. It’s sneaky sexism, where outdated narratives are the subtext. They’re implicit instead of explicit. We’re not turning the Green M&M pink, but the brand is replacing the old narrative of “women should ooze sex appeal” with “modern women don’t wear heels.” Maybe women can wear whatever the fuck they want. 

[B]

Branding historically has been intertwined with gender. It’s been precisely prescribed: if you want to appeal to women, you do this; if men, then this. One of the worst parts about this, is this prescription has hardly changed in the history of branding and advertising. And, on top of that, often a brand or product being seen as “too feminine,” is often couched in the negative.

[C]

Completely! Brands have played a role in popularizing and fueling traditional notions of feminine expression. We know now that representing yourself as female is a choice—and it doesn’t require a love of pink. We also recognize that some products shouldn’t be gender exclusive. 

That new awareness has been met with an onslaught of gender-neutral brands in make-up, fashion and wellness. But we’re most excited by gender-inclusive brands that aren’t doing away with feminine expression, but inviting more people to play with a range of traditionally femme qualities like Harry Styles new beauty brand, Pleasing. Brands like that celebrate and empower what it means to be a woman, making them desirable for people across the gender spectrum. 

[B]

I, too, was born a female-bodied human. But, as I’ve lived this life, I’ve uncovered more and more about my tension and discomfort around that fact. I didn’t have a word for it until just a few years ago— ”non-binary.” For ages, terms like androgynous or androgene swirled around; always feeling like something completely alien as a term. “Non-binary” works, though. Sometimes I feel more male than female; sometimes the other way around. Sometimes it’s really… neither. So it’s kind of like a third, or ‘other.’ I feel most often beyond-the-binary.

[C]

It’s such a powerful experience to share and it’s too often overlooked in the work we do.

[B] 

I didn’t really appreciate the power of a feminine body, silhouette, dress, etc., until I really got into Drag Queens. Somehow the exaggerated feminine called to me in a way that justifying my own rejection of such things for or on my body didn’t. In other words, I gained an appreciation for feminine expression as it appeared on a drag queen so much more than ever before.

[C]

To Latrice Royale “drag is full fantasy – you can become who and whatever you want to be.” I think brands can play a similar role to drag in our lives. It’s the idea that we’re not born into who we are, but we create it. To buy a brand is to choose products that reflect the things we care about and the kinds of lives we want to live. There’s this beautiful spectrum to how we represent ourselves as individuals that creates room for masc, femme and everything in between. 

[B] 

In a chat with Travis Barr, a long time friend of mine and international superstar, Anita Buffem, drag queen now based in upstate Cazenovia, NY, he had this to say:

“I consider myself gender transcendent. I’m just as proud of my ability to wear heels and use power tools. Gender is what you decide it is. If we take away heels, you’re excluding people who wear heels. Fashion— how we present ourselves— should be a celebration.” 

The appearance of ‘non-binary’ as a term was never meant to encompass everyone. I mean, cool if so, but the point is not for everyone to melt into the same gender expression. 

This is not about dilution. It’s about expansion. 

Travis continues, “There’s nothing wrong with femininity at a 5 or a 10. Besides, why can’t one of the male M&M’s wear heels? Why are we taking away heels? They make you taller, put your shoulders in a position of power. You can say they’re oppressive because you can’t run races in them. But I see them as a symbol of power and ultimate femininity. It’s almost empowering that you can’t move or if you struggle, but are able to walk with power and intention.”

This discussion is really about expanding gender beyond the binary, building on the idea that we’re all gradients of male and female and beyond. 

[C]

I’m deep in a binge-watch of the last season of drag race. It’s empowering. Drag is an ode to femininity. It treats femininity as a powerful force. I wonder what brands could learn from drag culture? How might it shape the ways they represent and engage with gender identity? Not by creating homogeneity, but by seeing the beauty in all the ways we’re different. Not by canceling heels, but by celebrating our right to choose to rock them—or not. Either way is good for us.