It could’ve been Starbursts, Twizzlers or Sour Patch Kids. But when Trayvon Martin was fatally shot, he happened to be carrying a bag of Skittles, a product of Chicago-based Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company.
The 17-year-old’s death at the hands of a neighborhood watchman in February ignited nationwide protests and heated debate about racial profiling and “Stand Your Ground” laws.
For Wrigley, a unit of Mars Inc., the tragedy presents another, more surreal dimension. Protestors carried bags of the chewy fruit-flavored candy while marching for the arrest of shooter George Zimmerman. Mourners pinned the bright red wrappers to their hooded sweatshirts at memorial services.
On eBay, vendors sell $10 T-shirts with the words “Justice for Trayvon Martin” printed over a cartoon-like rainbow of pouring Skittles.
Wrigley issued only a brief statement offering condolences to Martin’s friends and family, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further “as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain.”
The company declined to say whether the Martin case has had an impact on Skittles sales. Even so, it is one of the most popular candies in the U.S.
Sales grew 7 percent over the past year to $213.8 million, according to SymphonyIRI, a Chicago-based market research firm that tracks sales at supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Wal-Mart.
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.
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.
Skittles isn’t the first popular food brand to find itself at the center of a major controversy. The term “don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” has its origins in the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, where Reverend Jim Jones led more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple to drink a grape flavored drink laced with cyanide.
The powdered mix used to make the concoction was actually the lesser known Flavor Aid, based in West Chicago. Even so, executives at Kraft Foods Inc., which owns Kool-Aid, decided to let the matter go, rather than set the record straight.
“It would be like spitting into the wind at this point – it’s just part of the national lexicon,” says Bridget MacConnell, a Kraft spokeswoman. “We all try to protect the value of our brands. But this one just kind of got away from us. I don’t think there was any way to fight it.”
MacConnell added that Kool-Aid remains a popular drink and that the Jonestown tragedy has not overshadowed the brand.