Future of branding narratives

Why Mike & Ike’s gay divorce is part of the future of branding

Eric Garland Uncategorized 3 Comments

When my friend Doug Stephens, retail futurist par excellence with a great new book out, told me about this, I almost thought that it was satire of the marketing profession. And yet, it’s a real thing – selling candy through the lens of the gay rights movement – and a signpost that tells us about the future of branding.

In an effort to make the “Mike & Ike’s” brand of candy relevant to young adults, the brand’s managers decided to bolt on a story about Mike & Ike as some sort of romantic couple now going through a divorce. From the article “Brands Come Out of the Closet“:

Caught in the crossfire of the gay-marriage debate were Mike & Ike, Just Born’s old-school fruit-flavored candy from our childhood. The candy brand has been around since the 1940s, but has been relatively quiet the past few years. All that changed in April 2012, when in an attempt to capture a younger demographic, the company launched a marketing campaign based on Mike & Ike’s troubled partnership.

Though the advertising, social media and packaging campaign attributed the split to creative differences, it wasn’t long before rumors were flying that it was part of a “gay divorce.” The Family Research Council publicly denounced the brand, saying, “It’s just another subtle example of society chipping away at the value of marriage.” Is the world ready for a maybe-gay candy? It appears so. Mike & Ike had its best year sales-wise in a decade, up more than 7%; it also tripled its Facebook fanbase.

The company has reinforced this original take on candy with images designed to remind your of the impending personal strife facing the two male characters who have never been seen in public.

Future of branding narratives






Evidently, Ike is taking the whole thing rather hard and erasing any trace of Mike. You know how it is when a romance goes bad.

But wait! Facebook update! They are getting back together! Or something!

Is the future of branding in surreal stories?

advertisement from the 1930s


Once upon a time, people actually sold products by describing their benefits.






Then, as time went on, they moved on to showing how the product reinforced whatever identity the customer already had (or aspired to have)



Now, we’re in a brand new era. The future of branding seems to be about intriguing people with a story that captivates them – even if it really does not have a thing to do with the product or service sold.

In the old days, you would actually describe how delicious Mike & Ikes are. If you followed late 20th century logic, you would need to show how Mike & Ike defined you as a fun-loving or creative or whatever kind of person.

What we see today has no connection to that logic whatsoever. Nobody really thinks that Mike & Ike candies cause your gay romance to go bad – so it’s not a question of product feature. And nobody at the ad agency is attempting to say – “Mike & Ikes – the candy for people who believe in gay marriage, even bad ones.” And thus this isn’t a call to some form of identity.

No, the bad gay romance thing is just kind of funny. It’s ironic. For a young adult (the kind that isn’t aware of the diabetes epidemic) perhaps this kind of entertaining narrative will induce them to buy this brand of candy more often because – who knows what those crazy guys at Mike & Ike will come up with next. So, as we can see from the results, more people are willing to “like” the brand and purchase the product just because the narrative is unexpected.

In fact, this kind of phenomenon is revolutionary. What matters here is not the product or the consumer, but the brand itself. The customer is potentially drawn to the product because the people behind the brand seem to be plugged into the zeitgeist. Gay marriage is a cresting a huge wave all over the world; just as I write this, the French Senate approved the “Loi Taubira,” thus making gay marriage and adoption the law of the land. What does this have to do with candies? Nothing. But the brand is stating clearly, “Hey, we’re hip – we know what is interesting and relevant.”

Branding is really old hat these days – the new generation has been marketed to death since they were in diapers. Hearing about new products and what they mean to our identities is really old and busted. Connecting with a group of people – even through something trivial like candy – who know what’s important in the world – that’s something people seem to hunger for.

Is your brand able to connect itself to the larger cultural evolutions in the world? It seems to be driving sales.