Foreigners — some brown, some yellow, some green — are stealing the traditional jobs of the Londoner. Whether moonlighting as bobbies on the beat, Queen's Guards or Abbey Road-era Beatles, a sugarcoated American invader is claiming our heritage as its own. It goes by the oddly possessive noun, M&M's.
You could forgive anyone for being inveigled off the drizzly Monday pavements of Leicester Square by the warm, if suspiciously ersatz, fug of chocolate emanating from M&M's World. The 35,000 sq ft of Wonkerish retail space has been beckoning visitors in since 2011, following on the heels of its cousins in New York, Vegas and Orlando. The rub is that most people traipsing these 'four levels of fun' are not here to keep dry; this place is on the list along with Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the Eye.
Giuseppe and his two friends — all middle aged — are on a business trip from Italy. M&M's are loved over there, Giuseppe says, but the Italians have no Mars, Inc. wonderland of their own. Indeed, though M&M's is the biggest selling chocolate brand in the world, London's is the only M&M's World in Europe. The men show off their spoils, rucksacks and towels mainly, which are for their children back home.
Like Giuseppe, Johann — on holiday from Korea — has come briefed by his kids. "It's a very special place," Johann says, "I will select some toys. I don't know what". He goes back to posing in front of a frieze that parodies the Beatles album Abbey Road. Any display documenting the actual inception of M&M's in 1941 in New Jersey — and how the sugar coating was used to stop soldiers getting their rations melted over their fingers — is absent. But then what's any of that got to do with London?
Something else is absent; it's conspicuous how few children are here. Yes, it's a Monday morning but then the majority of customers appear to be on holiday. Perhaps it's for the best; imagine the horror of being pestered to dig deep for a £4.95 fridge magnet, a £20 stuffed toy; tie-in Star Wars mugs and mouse mats which cost more than going to see the film. And how many spoilt brats might drool against the glass case containing a Swarovski crystal and lambskin jacket? — a snip at £2,266.95.
Customers aren't just buying for their offspring though; rather than the dead, blank stares you might expect from the adult contingent, many of them look like they've just found a golden ticket. We come across Manuel and Manuela, a bubbly couple in their 20s from Spain, who've lived in Leicester for six months and are on their first trip to London. They're looking to buy each other presents, and are currently perusing mugs that take the form of M&M's character Ms. Brown. Ms. Brown is a smart, sassy piece of eye candy whose turn-on is power — one for the dads if you like. Manuel and Manuela have done Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, and now M&M's World. Why? They've read up about this place on TripAdvisor. Previous Visitors have ranked the attraction on an equal footing with the Summer State Rooms at Buckingham Palace.
But what of the vital ingredient; the chocolate itself? Millie Amann, who works at the London store, tells us that one of the major pulls to this tourist attraction is the fresh chocolate you can buy here. How much of the chocolate is fresh, is debatable. Aside from a dedicated lab where they 'make' candy to order, the M&M's are presumably shipped in, packaged in everything from plastic wine bottles (£16.95 for 740g) to miniature fruit machines.
Then there are the pick n' mix walls; huge tubes of sweets all the colours of all the rainbows (although generally only four flavours). Not only are there teal M&M's and Union Jack M&M's, you can purchase M&M's the colour of a London park. Someone give that blue-sky thinker a raise.
It's this London Park Mix (and the Abbey Road crossing, and the cuddly policeman, and the massive plastic Queen's Guard) which is a clue to the success of the M&M's brand here in Leicester Square. Do people like the taste of the chocolate and peanuts? Certainly. Are some coaxed in by the prospect of an encounter with Ms. Brown? Why not. But what M&M's World does is to stir together the biggest chocolate brand ever with the biggest city brand ever — London.
This is the most major glucose-infused coming together of brands since Tate merged with Lyle. And the best thing for M&M's is that most of London is untrademarkable. You can't trademark a bobby, or a double decker bus, or a Union Flag (although we suspect that someone involved with the Beatles franchise got a hefty pay-off).
What's being sold here is London in sugarcoated chocolate form. And though the consummate Londoner will find this place infra dig, it's probably not going anywhere. M&M's World wouldn't give us their annual visitor figures, but that their Monday-Saturday opening hours have been extended from midnight to 2am, suggests they're doing alright for themselves. Would it be more fitting to have a Twiglets World in London? A Kingdom of Golden Syrup? Of course. But the customers have voted with their feet. And the customer — though few here are Londoners — is always right. They'd just better hope they can continue to afford to be right.