Sweet Escape

June 1, 2007
Big technology delivers big-brand experience

By Chelsea Houy

Red? Yellow? Plain? Peanut?

These are the types of questions M&M's* lovers have grappled with for decades.

Well, struggle no more.

A true mecca for the M&M's aficionado has arrived, a place to engage one's inner M&M in an immersive, sensory experience that is anything but plain.

A Beacon Amid the Bustle
M&M's World acts as a beacon in the heart of New York's Times Square, delivering a larger-than-life expression of the candy-coated confection first introduced by Forrest Mars Sr. in 1941.

It smiles. It breathes. It allows visitors to get up close and personal with the brand's beloved characters - Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow - as never before.

But in the midst of the flash and fanfare of the surrounding landscape, design and technology remain faithful to the fun, color, and character that are M&M's.

"We wanted technology that was brand-congruent," explains John Haugh, president of Henderson, NV-based Mars Retail Group, a subsidiary of Mars Inc. "It's not Xbox. We're not selling technology. We're selling a brand, and technology is an enabler to sell that brand better."

And there's no better time to witness these phenomenon than at nighttime.

Kong-Sized Tech
As cabs empty at the corner of 48th and Broadway, the colorful characters leap from the store's facade to greet visitors. All architectural and technological bounds seem to disappear. Enclosed in 270 degrees of glass, the structure is prismatic, emitting an M&M-spectrum of color and light against the square.

For Columbus, OH-based design firm Chute Gerdeman Retail, architect of M&M's World, the task was to bring the brand's characters to life in true New York style. "There was a certain, specific attitude we had to adopt with the environment and the brand to reflect the Times Square location," says Steve Pottschmidt, director of design development at Chute Gerdeman. For Mars, only cutting-edge technology could properly represent this iconic brand in this iconic location.

Above the Broadway Street entrance, vignettes of the candy's adventures in the big city play out on a 32½-foot-high by 31¼-foot-wide LED panel. It is one of two gigantic displays manufactured by Union City, NJ-based D3 LED with content designed by New York-based Show & Tell Productions. "As you stand in front of the store, these massive signs really dominate - one, because of their color and richness, but two, because they're so close to the ground," explains Show & Tell president Phil Lenger, whose firm specializes in large-scale LED display installations. Adjacent to the display, Red, as King Kong, scales the Empire State Building in an acrylic sign designed by Spectrum Signage.

Suddenly, an explosion of M&M's bursts forth from yet another LED display above the 7th Street entrance. The 58¾-foot-high by 45-foot-wide display seems to hardly contain the M&M's from flooding the square (which may not be so bad after all).

Green's face now dominates. She smiles. The façade of the store appears to blush. But it isn't a rosy blush. It is at first green, then yellow, then blue.

Bright Lights, Big City
When Mars acquired the three-story, 21,000-square-foot property, it was a raw space. It had reinforced concrete floors and ceilings with massive, 30-inch-diameter columns dominating the first and second floors. Each lends structural support to 22 stories of adjoining condominiums above. Architects and lighting designers, however, turned what may have seemed an obstacle into opportunity.

"Based on the fact that [Chute Gerdeman] was designing this store in almost an exhibition style, with millwork and fabric structures, and less focused on hard walls and ceilings, we chose to use the columns throughout the structure to create repetitive movement," says Kira Crossman, studio manager at Farmington Hills, MI-based Illuminating Concepts. Lighting designers proposed transforming the columns into a color-changing light feature - animating the transparent façade and thereby establishing the store's presence in the square.

Designers demonstrated a full-scale mock-up of the feature's structure at Chute Gerdeman's offices to determine how bright they could make it and still fall within budget. It wasn't possible to brightly, and affordably, illuminate the feature during the day, so designers focused on the evening hours, pulling in crowds strolling past the venue on their way to or from Broadway shows and other attractions.

An internal skeleton and outer skeleton of what Crossman equates to a shower curtain-like fabric, manufactured by Moss, is wrapped around the top half of 18 columns - seven on the first floor, 11 on the second - lining the interior perimeter of the store. White PVC covers the lower half of columns to hide electrical, plumbing, and roof drains that service the space. Color Kinetics' ColorBlast 6 LED technology illuminates the fabric and produces color that matches the M&M's colors to a T.

Clever programming, which even cool Blue could appreciate, connects the columns to the exterior LED displays.

Each animation displayed on the exterior LED panels has what Lenger refers to as "hot spots." Each hot spot contains a certain color. A software system called IC Color picks up the color samples and routes them directly into the lighting system in the columns as well as grids of color-changing acrylic domes behind cash wraps/checkout counters. Together, the color-changing columns, displays, and software create an experience that is almost translucent to the world.

Grids of color-changing acrylic domes behind cash wraps on the first, second, and mezzanine floors take cues from the exterior LED displays.
PHOTO: Mark Steele

"You're bringing the experience out, as well as the visitors in. A lot of that had to do with making that glass sometimes feel like it is disappearing. You can literally walk in and out of the space feeling that sense of arrival," says Michael Shulman, studio director, Illuminating Concepts.

A Show & Tell animator creates new content for the displays and coordinates it with the lighting design, which is more cost-effective because it doesn't require a lighting designer to be on-site as changes are made, says Lenger; the new program is simply loaded to the system.

A New York State of Mind
Upon entering the space, visitors may be greeted by Blue, decked out in disco garb, striking a pose a la John Travolta, "Saturday Night Fever," or Red disguised as a window washer. These are just two of several life-sized fiber glass fixtures strategically placed throughout the space. It was important that all imagery, inside and outside, was designed with a New York state of mind.

"It's not like going to Gap - you go to one and you go to another and you don't know whether you're in San Francisco or Des Moines. When you go into the store, you are enveloped in New York-centric M&M's," says Haugh.

Trumpet-shaped lighting fixtures, called "hero columns," allow merchandise to take center stage.
PHOTO: Mark Steele

As guests continue their tour of the first floor, unique, trumpet-shaped, floor-to-ceiling fixtures light the way. They are actually structural columns, undercover. Dubbed "hero columns" by Chute Gerdeman, they double as an interior light fixture and merchandise display on both the first and second floors. With the exterior saturated in color, lighting designers and architects wanted interiors to showcase products as the heros.

Top halves of columns are wrapped in Moss white fabric with an M&M's candy print and backlit with strip fluorescents. Color testing was done to ensure the lamps properly showed the M&M's colors on the printed fabric, says Crossman. The bottom halves are wrapped in a PVC slatwall system manufactured by Showall. Suspended line voltage tracks with metal halide track heads surround several of the hero columns and color-changing columns, spotlighting merchandise.

All together, the feature provides a white backdrop for merchandise. It also keeps customer focus off cable and mechanical equipment in the ceiling by bringing their gaze down. This is especially important on the second floor, where nine air-handling units hang from the ceiling.

M&M's Immersion
As patrons board an escalator to the second floor, Green rises over the threshold as Lady Liberty, inviting them to explore thousands of M&M's collectibles. But anyone with M&M's-radar will immediately detect the Wall of Chocolate: a two-story (23-foot) colossus containing more than a million M&M's. Seventy-two tubes each hold one of the 21 colors of M&M's in either plain or peanut varieties.

But what color to pick?

Step right up to - the Color-Mood Analyzer.

The Color-Mood Analyzer is one way in which customers can immerse themselves in the M&M’s World experience. As the machine scans the subject, a hidden camera takes a picture of the customer that is thrown onto one of two 5-foot-diameter screens.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Mars Retail Group

After customers position themselves under what resembles a big showerhead, a light beam travels over their head. As the machine analyzes the subject, a hidden camera takes their picture, and a ceiling-mounted Eiki International projector splashes the picture onto one of two 5-foot-diameter, round projection screens on the Wall of Chocolate. Each screen, manufactured by Universal Custom Display, is readily visible from the street and a suspended mezzanine designed into the second-floor space by architects. "There's a whole interactive entertainment aspect of playfulness going on there. You are part of that by being assigned a color. It just kind of helps people immerse themselves a little bit more into the M&M's brand," comments Pottschmidt.

As the Color-Mood Analyzer completes its scan, a small video monitor in front of the customers tells them what colors they are; it then directs them to the Wall of Chocolate where they can fill a bag with their "color."

With candy and collectibles in hand, customers have their purchases rung up, then placed in one of the trademark yellow bags that can often be seen around Times Square.

Sweet Success
The store opened on December 7, 2006, on schedule, just before the holidays. Haugh credits his crack creative team for the store's sweet success. "We built it in 6 months, and if we'd given ourselves 12 months, we still would have had a bunch of challenges. Your series of opportunities and challenges always fits the amount of space you give it.

"If you look at what this team did, it's absolutely brilliant the way they created the space, and the speed within which they did it, it's truly phenomenal."
There's no doubt: Chocolate is indeed better in color.

*M&M'S® and M&M'S World® are registered trademarks of Mars Inc. Red©, Blue©, Yellow©, and Green© are copyrighted characters of Mars Inc.

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