The Strange Cult of M&M's Obsession Has Spread to China

M&M’s Worlds are giant stores that dispense sweets through industrial-sized tubes, flog enough branded tat to make Disney’s merch team weep, and provoke all kinds of cultish behaviour. We took a walk around the newest addition to the M&M-pire in...

I've always been mildly baffled at the concept of M&M's as a brand to truly engage with.

Ubiquitous as the little colourful sweets are, to me they are seldom more than a default confectionary choice. They're a can of Coca-Cola on a hot day; a Friends repeat when there's nothing else on; a Marks & Spencer Simply Cheddar sandwich on a train—nice, reliable, always available, if not quite ever feeling like a genuine treat.

All images by the author.

As such, the popularity of the branches of M&M's World—enormous, colour-splattered shrines to the chocolates—has always felt odd. I can understand, say, my fellow Britons' affiliation with Cadbury: a cosy brand aligning itself with institutions such as Coronation Street and with an attraction, Cadbury World, with an actual historical element.

But M&M's Worlds are essentially just shops, dispensing sweets through industrial-sized tubes and flogging branded tat in quantities that would make Disney's merch team turn the colour of the white-gloved selfie-magnet pictured above.

kid with orange toy

All these photos were taken at the latest branch of M&M's World, on Shanghai's East Nanjing Road, joining the international network that already boasts venues in Las Vegas (the original store), New York, Orlando, Henderson and London.

Its 1,600 square metres pale in comparison to London's 35,000 square metre mini-city on Leicester Square. And unlike its cousins, the Shanghai venue—Asia's first—doesn't yet have M&M dancers prancing around making you feel like you're having an acid trip in an airport duty free shop.

Outside shot

But it's still pretty big. And like anything big, new and involving cutesy characters in China, people have been flocking to it in droves since the unveiling of those two red and yellow chocolates with arms heralded its opening earlier this month.

Would M&M's obsession make more sense in Shanghai, the ultimate capitalist city, where many western brands are treated with such reverence already? I had to find out.

Red M&M kid photo

Taking selfies and shots of loved ones next to quirky objects is a national pastime here, and the opportunities M&M's World presents did not disappoint the punters.

Panda statue

Particularly as most of the decor had been fed through a China cliché-ification mincer. There was, of course, a panda M&M.

Terracotta warrior M&M

And, of course, a Terracotta Warrior M&M. I was half expecting an M&M with a Chairman Mao haircut carved into its sugar shell head.

the great wall of chocolate

The main attraction, though, was heralded by a cascade of rain-on-cabin-roof sound, as thousands of M&M's dropped through tubes into waiting plastic bags being handed out by an army of orange-shirted staffers. Welcome to the bedlam that is The Great Wall Of Chocolate.

There might only have been three M&M varieties (standard milk chocolate, peanut and almond) for sale, but the important thing was that they were available in 22 different colours.

Chocolate scramble

Even though I was visiting mid-afternoon on a non-holiday Thursday, the scramble for the best colours was vicious. I had guessed that Chinese affiliation with 'brand M&M' was more to do with the cutesy characters rather than the main product, but although there was a brisk trade in tat it was the Wall that was sending people into sugar frenzies as they clawed their way towards the most colourful dispensing tubes.

You can't actually buy standard supermarket-issue M&M packets in the store—it's product exclusivity that's the big draw here.

Guy buying M&Ms

This guy, who was from Changshu province and in Shanghai on holiday, concurred. "The taste is pretty good," he shrugged. "But they have so many colours. Why have I chosen these colours? These colours are for girls. They're for my girlfriend." A girl I spoke to said that lots of things here can't be bought anywhere else. "It's very special," she said.

Phone cover

I had to agree with her: I've certainly never seen this lovely phone case in any other shop. "In supermarkets M&M's are packaged," she continued. "But here we can choose what we want and package them ourselves. They have a machine!"

Mood machine

Another machine they have is a sensor rig that tells you what "colour mood" you have (the colours always being one of those you can get M&M's in). This girl was told: "You have a deep appreciation of the art of chocolate." I waited around to see if any more serious messages came up such as, say, "You've got six months to live", but all of the answers seemed to be chocolate-related.

I left Shanghai's M&M's World realising that there was nothing hugely complicated about its popularity. In this frivolous city the fervent 'build it, and they shall come' mentality can be observed everywhere from the skyscraper building rate—which is quicker than New York and Tokyo's—to the constant expansion of the city's mega-malls.

But after seeing the joy on the customers' faces as they snapped up their special colourful rare chocolate bounty, I had to admit I had a new appreciation of M&M's that perhaps elevates them above, say, Smarties. And there they will stay, until Smarties World opens and is filled with tubes of exclusive colours I can't find anywhere else, but that all taste identical.

Yellow statue