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Skittles joins food brands at center of tragedy

By Candice Choi

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 3:57 p.m. MDT

As difficult as it may be for companies to weather controversy, the uncomfortable attention doesn't spell the end of a product. Hostess and Kraft say they don't have information on whether the "Twinkie" and "Kool-Aid" catch-phrases had an impact on sales. But both brands clearly survived.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company declined to say whether the Martin case has had an impact on Skittles sales. But it is one of the most popular candies. Annual sales have grown steadily to $213.8 million in 2011, according to SymphonyIRI, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracks sales at supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Walmart.

The best approach for companies is to maintain a low profile, says Katherine Sredl, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. That's particularly true in the Martin case, where any action by Mars could be interpreted as insincere or opportunistic.

Fate can swing in the other direction too, of course. Companies can become the beneficiaries of unexpected positive press, usually when celebrities are spotted consuming their products without being paid for an endorsement.

Last winter, Skittles basked in exactly that type of exposure when NFL star Marshawn Lynch was shown scarfing down a bag of the candy on the sideline after a touchdown. Lynch, a running back for the Seattle Seahawks, explained it was a tradition he started with his mother in high school. Fans started throwing Skittles at Seahawks games.

In that scenario, Mars was quick to step forward and capitalize on the opportunity. The McLean, Va.-based company gave Lynch a free two-year supply as well as a custom-made Skittles dispenser for his locker.

Despite becoming ensnared in the Martin case a few months later, Mars may ultimately benefit from the tragedy, says Sredl, the marketing professor. The many people who see Martin as an innocent victim might buy the candy in solidarity or an act of protest, she says.

Sredl believes the Martin case could help to reinforce the buoyant image Skittles convey.

"Skittles have always symbolized youth and innocence. They're so brightly colored and almost pure sugar," Sredl says.

That's why the candy became such a vivid detail in the Martin case. In the public imagination, it underscored that the teenager was "just a kid walking down the street eating Skittles," Sredl says.

Perhaps more importantly, Skittles has become a part of the public discourse, she says. And that's always good for a company.

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