For Skittles, Death Brings Both Profit and Risk


Rashaun Collins, who owns the Discreetly Greek T-shirt company in Minnesota, slips a pack into every order he ships.

At Spelman College, the historically black women’s liberal arts school in Atlanta, the student government is buying Skittles in bulk and reselling them for 50 cents a bag to raise money for the family of Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot and killed by a crime watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., last month carrying only a packet of the candy and a bottle of iced tea.

The candy has been piled into makeshift memorials, crammed into the pockets of thousands of people who have shown up at rallies in his name and sent to the Sanford Police Department to protest the lack of an arrest in the case.

Like the hoodie sweatshirt he was wearing, the candy has been transformed into a cultural icon, a symbol of racial injustice that underscores Trayvon’s youth and the circumstances surrounding his death. But in the offices of the company that makes Skittles, Wrigley, and its parent company, Mars, Skittles’ new level of fame has quickly become a kind of marketing crisis that is threatening to hurt the company even as sales improve.

“You get trained if someone dies eating your product, but I don’t think anyone has been through training for something like this,” said Beth Gallant, a marketing professor at Lehigh University who has worked as a brand manager for Nabisco, Kraft, Pfizer and Crayola.

Like Twinkies — whose poor nutritional value ended up as a legal defense in the 1978 murders of the San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, and Flavor Aid, the powdered drink that the cult leader Jim Jones laced with cyanide to kill more than 900 people in Guyana that same year — Skittles has now entered the elite world of food products that have become symbols through no fault of their own.

For its part, Wrigley has chosen to make only a subdued statement about its product, saying the company is deeply saddened, respects the family’s privacy and feels “it inappropriate to get involved or comment further as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain following this tragedy.”

A spokeswoman, Jennifer Jackson Luth, would not comment on the impact of Skittles’s sudden popularity on profits.

Skittles was already an immensely successful product. The chewy fruit-flavored pellets began as a British import in 1979 and are now the most popular candy among teenagers and younger children, second only to Starburst in overall sales of chewy candy. But with a new level of popularity come problems.

“There is this moment where as a brand manager you think, ‘Oh my God, this is bigger than we are,’ ” said Heidi Hovland, a senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard in New York whose client list includes Hyatt Hotels, Barnes & Noble and several food companies.

On social media sites like Twitter, people are suggesting that Wrigley is profiting greatly from the tragedy and should donate money made since Trayvon’s death to the family or causes that would help with racial reconciliation or underprivileged communities. Some African-Americans are even asking people to stop buying Skittles until the company gets more involved in the case and donates money.

“I think we are at a dangerous position where we can make Wrigley richer,” said Rashad Moore, 22, president of the chapel assistants at Morehouse College.

Weldon McWilliams, a professor of African-American studies at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, said Wrigley should invest in communities where “murder based on stereotypes is a reoccurring theme.”

If they do not, African-Americans should not be promoting the product, Dr. McWilliams said. “I completely understand the symbolism, but let’s re-examine what we’re doing,” he said. “Will Wrigley’s reinvest that rise in profit that they see? I’m highly skeptical of that.”

For Deanna Smith, a retired teacher who brought her 12-year-old granddaughter to a march for the Martin family in Atlanta this week, it is merely about standing up against racism. She also brought a big bag of Skittles. She does not mind that the company is making money from her purchase. The cause is more important.

“He was so innocent,” she said. “Just getting candy from the store.”

And after the march, they ate the Skittles.

“There was no reason to let candy go to waste,” she said.

Crisis management and public relations experts who are watching the Skittles situation unfold say the company has taken the right initial stance.

“Wrigley’s is playing it exactly as I expect they would — they make a quiet statement and just sit back and let this thing unfold,” said Amy Stern, vice president of Bender Hammerling Group, a public relations company that does work with several large food companies.

“The fact is, this is bringing their brand name to the forefront,” she said. “It’s becoming its own social media campaign, and that’s a windfall for the company. But you have to step carefully. This could backfire.”

It is too soon for Wrigley to decide if it will use money from its foundation to support causes linked to Trayvon’s death, said Stephanie Childs, a former crisis manager for ConAgra Foods who helped the company through the salmonella contamination of its Peter Pan peanut butter brand and has also worked with its charitable foundation.

“Any time you are dealing with a legal case, it adds a level of complexity that is a challenge to work with, especially when you are indirectly involved,” she said.

She and others say the company will take a hit no matter how it handles the situation. If it donates money, people will criticize it for being not enough. If it speaks publicly, people will say they are capitalizing on it. And it will all be played out so much faster because of social media.

How well Skittles will fare is uncertain, but Ms. Hovland and others believe the impact on the brand will be short-lived. “When cooler heads prevail,” she said, “people will recognize that this was a candy that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

With its air of innocence and its slogan — “Taste the rainbow” — Skittles seemed a perfect symbol to help define the story, but it now is at risk of turning into something else.

“It’s gone so quickly from the symbol of innocence and tragedy to one of ‘now that they are making all this money, what are they going to do with it?’ ” Ms. Hovland said. “It’s amazing how short the arc has become.”

Robbie Brown contributed reporting.

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