Premium M&Ms: Affordable luxury or candy-coated blasphemy?

One of the sacred memories of an American childhood is going upscale. M&Ms, those much-loved candy-coated bits of chocolate that could salve any ouchie, are now going premium, which means fancier coatings, fancier flavors, fancier packaging...all at a much fancier price. Why? Blame it on the fancy chocolate market.

My wife is a premium chocolate junkie, which means that, in the eight or so years that we've been together, I've learned more than I ever thought possible about chocolate. I have absorbed information about chocolate liqueur, cacao percentage, cocoa mass, cocoa solids, country of origin, and all the other variables that separate the Dagoba from the Valhrona, the Scharffen-Berger from the Hershey's and the top-of-the-line from the bottom of the barrel.

Personally, though, my tastes have always tended toward the more proletarian. While I appreciate the occasional bar of 72% cocoa solids, dark Belgian chocolate, I still get a big kick out of a couple of Reese's cups, a packet of Kit-Kats, or a handful of kisses. Most of all, like millions of other Americans, I have a big, warm, candy-coated spot in my heart for M&Ms.

Over the years, M&Ms have gone through quite a few transformations. Originally given to soldiers in World War II, the peanut and chocolate candies with a hard shell were later joined by solid chocolate, almond (1988), peanut butter (1990), dark chocolate (2005), and crisped-rice (1998-2005) candies. They have been mixed with a variety of flavorings, super-sized, and even shrunk to miniatures.

When I was four, red M&Ms were taken off the market and, when I was 16, they came back. In the meantime, the fine folks at Mars gave us orange M&Ms to tide us over. When red returned, orange stayed, later to be joined by blue, purple, and numerous other colors that shift, depending upon the season, the whims of the marketing department, and the movies that M&Ms happen to be promoting. After the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the company gave the students and faculty thousands of little bags of maroon and burnt orange M&Ms. I don't know if it made all that much of a difference, but the candies, bright with my school colors, made me feel a little better.

Through all of this, and in spite of numerous imitators, M&Ms have remained basically the same. They've had the same basic shell, the same basic lentil shape, and even (largely) the same colors. Like the Coca-Cola bottle, the Reese's cup, or the Cracker Jack package, they've remained a consistent and classic image that connects me to my childhood in an immediate and intimate way.

All of that is about to change. Mars Snackfoods, Inc., the owners of M&Ms, have just released "Premium M&Ms" in limited markets, along with a gargantuan ad campaign that features a sexy green M&M. The new candies are packaged differently than the traditional chocolates and have a shimmery new coating, as well as a collection of new, complex flavors, including mint chocolate, mocha, triple chocolate, raspberry almond, and chocolate almond.

All that premium-ness also comes with a premium price tag: the new M&Ms cost $3.99 for a 6-ounce package.

So far, reviews have been mixed, with some tasters complaining that the "premium" shell is chalky, crumbly, or waxy. Personally, I'd imagine that this irritation might also be related to customer confusion. After all, M&Ms are the ultimate plebian candy: cheap, colorful, and beloved by children. Tarting them up with new coatings and flavors in an attempt to capture a more adult audience seems counter-intuitive. Still, the market for premium chocolate grew almost 18% over the last year, while cheaper chocolates only had a modest 1.4% growth. And, in the current economy, this might be the perfect candy; simultaneously "premium" and comforting, it lets consumers pretend that they are wealthy while reminding them of the brand that made them feel so much better when they were kids. At the end of the day, $3.99 might be a small price to pay for six ounces of friendly reassurance!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's not too worried about the premium trend, as long as the researchers at Hershey's keep their filthy mitts off his Reese's cups.

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