Mars Learns From Social Networking Faux Pas

May 18, 2009

There are lessons to be learned in Mars Inc.’s use of social networking tools in its recent attempt to reinvigorate its Skittles candy brand. The effort at first was an overnight success … but a few nights later it was being dismantled as the social networkers -- to whom too much control was given and maybe not enough respect -- overran the sites with everything but support for the product.

In March, Mars, led by the interactive shop, launched a radically redesigned web site for Skittles. The new “un-site” is a simple overlay on social networks focused on the product.

One view was of the Skittles Facebook page. Another view was of Skittles’ Wikipedia entry. The company chose a Twitter feed about Skittles as its homepage.

In just a few days, the Facebook page had more than 580,000 friends. “Tweets” were coming in fast and furious, with pages of tweets every minute at its peak. But in less than a week, the experiment had blown up and the candy company was forced to change its strategy.

With Twitter as the homepage, the site became a platform for individuals to see themselves show up on the homepage of a major brand. Unfortunately, people made racial epithets, wrote profanities and Tweeted about competitors’ products. The conversation went downhill from there.

Mars removed Twitter from its spot as the homepage and replaced it with the safer Wikipedia entry. Twitter is still accessible from the Skittles site, but without its prominence as the homepage, the stridency of the chatter has died down and the tweets have become tame.

The Skittles site took an arrogant view of the social networks. Mars assumed it could profit from the natural conversations between individuals. This sent a clear signal to consumers that Mars didn’t really value their thoughts and opinions – Mars just wanted to use them to make their brand “cool” and to drive sales. Of course, the social communities recognized this and reacted swiftly to punish Mars.

There is real value in working within social networks for communications and marketing purposes. The lessons are in how one engages with the communities.

First, you have to treat the communities with respect and without arrogance. You have to authentically involve them in the brand. You have to recognize that your brand is not perfect – and consumers can help you. You have to do the hard work of building engagement and developing loyalty.

Second, don’t turn your brand over to your audiences. Marketers have debated who “owns” the brand for a century. Most have agreed that the company owns the desired brand, while what the consumer believes is the active brand. The goal is to ensure that the active brand matches the desired brand. Mars turned the entire brand over to the consumer – not a good idea.