Category Drivers of 2005 Honored

readers are going to recognize the names of many of the winning candy suppliers this year, as all have won in some capacity since the award program’s inception in 2002. BY RENEE MARISA COVINO
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
That is from the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, and although his comments date back a couple of thousand years, they might well be applied to the Category Drivers and Silver Circle Award winners of 2005. All of this year’s winners have been previous winners—and all have indeed shown excellence to be their habit. According to the retailers we surveyed, these winning candy suppliers are driving a big part of the candy category sales and growth in the retail marketplace.
“The purpose of this program is not only to honor companies doing an excellent job in the market, but also to push the entire industry toward even further excellence,” says Tonia Becker VerShaw, publisher of Confectioner.  “Our goal is to help raise the bar for the rest of the candy industry, thus leading to a higher standard of service overall.”
And so for the past four years, Confectioner has celebrated the candy vendors who are out in front—and in this industry’s case—habitually out in front. This is even more impressive considering that each year winners are chosen from a tally of unaided interviews. Our retailer/distributor respondents are asked open-ended questions as to which they think the winners are in each category; they are not given a list of companies to assist them with their selections.
And so recently, retail and distributor Confectioner readers voted for their top choices in the fourth annual Category Driver Awards. Excellence in the marketplace today means confectionery companies must not only represent product innovation, they must also be flexible enough to work with specific channel requests. Our winners have developed the exceptional skills in catering to these needs, just as well as to those of the more traditional mass retailers.
And that’s in a more competitive and highly scrutinized market. Not only are there so many alternatives for quick snacking at the front end, but savvier consumers are reading labels and often times looking for what they deem “healthier” choices.
Many innovative candy companies were quick to respond last year with low-sugar and/or low-carbohydrate confections. This year the focus is less on “low-carb” and more on “better for you” products, so once again, we responded with the appropriate categories.  
Votes were tabulated from confidential retail and distributor sources, which, all together, represent more than 40,000 stores within the food, drug, mass, convenience, wholesale club, dollar store, specialty, and other alternative channels.
Topps/ICC Tie on Top
Topps maintained its winning position from last year, only this year it had to share the spotlight with last year’s (and 2003’s) Silver Circle Winner: Innovative Candy Concepts.  The two companies represent both the established and the newly established in novelty candy. It seems the category has narrowed a bit since last year; these two players of excellence each won with a larger percentage of votes than Topps did last year. That’s because fewer competitors were named around them, as retailers and distributors noticed a reduction in new companies playing in this category.
Topps was highly praised for its brand awareness and partnering skills. “It doesn’t hurt that I have a good opinion of Topps from when I was a kid,” said one buyer. “They have now surpassed their 50th anniversary with incredibly innovative, yet solid, good-tasting play candy for kids. Their name is ‘tops’ with our kid customers.”
Another brand-name comment included: “They support their items with good contests and promotions. I think every kid that buys candy has heard of at least one of their products.”
After two years of being named a second-place winner in the category, Innovative Candy Concepts finally achieved first-place status, along with Topps. Armand Hammer, the company president, is the reason why this company has risen to the top in such a short time; his name is as synonymous with innovation as the company itself. “He’s a leader in this category because he thinks like a kid,” says one respondent.
That may be true, since the company’s mainstay products, Too Tarts and Suck Ups, have “flown off shelves,” according to buyers, since their inception. But Hammer has also brought a tremendous amount of responsibility and “better for you” awareness to the category after making the bold move last year to convert the entire line to a “smart choice” banner, with real juice concentrates, no refined sugar, and 50-60 percent fewer calories than the original line of sour candy had when it first hit the market more than three years ago.
“It was gutsy to do, but the truth is, I don’t think kids noticed any difference,” maintained a buyer. “The candy tastes good and is fun to eat, and that’s what counts here.” What really counts with our panel of respondents is that the company has a “fabulous display unit” offering its five top sellers in six inches of space.
Silver Circle Award
After being awarded a surprise first-place win in the non-chocolate category last year, Nestlé showed its excellence in diversity by earning a second-place spot in novelty candy with its Willy Wonka brand this year. Only a percentage-point shy of making it a three-way tie for first place, this supplier continues to maintain substantial retail support from varied players in the industry. Many claim that even before novelty candy was named a category, Nerds and Runts were enticing kids in ways candy never had before, and are still consistent with “a loyal following,” according to our survey.
Wrigley Wraps It Up
For the fourth year in a row, Wrigley has been named the highest-ranking winner of gum and breath-freshening products. But for the last two years, respondents have mentioned that “the new Wrigley” has moved beyond its former, somewhat-stagnant reputation with “new products, new packaging, and new programs.”
The company was always a great brand name, “but now it’s coupling that name with true innovation,” says a drug buyer.
Another big-chain buyer in the supermarket channel agreed that the company has “turned into a true innovator again.” He said that he also considers Wrigley “a trendsetter player, which isn’t always easy” for such an established company. “They have more at stake than the smaller manufacturers who typically take bigger risks, but Wrigley has kept ahead of the market, and takes good, calculated risks, as in their new packaging and unique fruit flavors.”
Silver Circle Award
While Wrigley won first place in the category fair and square, Adams is quickly gaining on the leader. This year, second-place Adams was only a few votes behind being tied for first place. New flavors of Trident gum, and use of the sugar-free sweetener Xylitol, which is believed to be good for teeth, were some of the innovations mentioned as reasons the company was the top choice of some respondents.
Interestingly this year, first-place nominations were strong one way or the other, but many respondents also noted that the other player completed the line. “Adams is my first choice because their SKUs sell faster, but Wrigley’s rounds it out for us with a slightly older demographic. We really need them both,” admitted one niche buyer.
Other respondents who chose Adams did so because “they are a great partner,” and “they try harder.”
While in previous years Wrigley and Adams were the only two outstanding players mentioned in the category, this year they both had some healthy competition that may just keep them on their toes in near-future years. While neither received enough votes to win first or second place, Hershey, with its new flavors of Icebreakers mints, and Altoids, with its new impressive tinned gum, were voted by multiple respondents as their top innovative picks in the category.
Hershey Hones in on Holidays
Hershey has maintained its seasonal spotlight this year. And once again, numerous buyers mentioned its Limited Edition chocolates as the single factor that put the leading candy manufacturer above its peers in the seasonal category.
It seems many consumers now await special editions (such as the mint-chocolate Hershey’s Kisses, or the Cookies ‘N’ Mint Hershey’s Nuggets, both available only in fourth-quarter holidays), which many buyers and distributors see as “ingenious.” According to one distributor, “Hershey started this limited-edition trend, which is taking hold by others, mostly during holiday seasons. From a distribution standpoint, it’s perfect; they are one of the best companies to work with, and they have created incremental sales which we can easily manage on a limited basis.”
But even with Limited Edition aside, the name Hershey has become synonymous with excellence in seasonal candy because of its fantastic “in and out” capabilities. Buyers report that Hershey “moves so quickly now on new products” that “it knows before we have a chance to complain what isn’t selling well.” According to a distributor, “Hershey is its own worst critic and our best ally, because it does a great job analyzing and moving its business forward, which in turn, keeps us on the cutting edge of candy.”
Silver Circle Award
After a year off from the winner’s “circle” in seasonal, R.M. Palmer is back in the silver spotlight. The company got even more creative last year with novelty seasonal products such as Goog-ly Eyes, a bag of chocolate “eyeballs” attached to a colorful, silly mask that can be used for trick-or-treating.
Beyond the “renewed product innovation with great-tasting chocolate to boot,” buyers had “a great deal of respect” for this established seasonal candy company and the “highly professional” way its people have consistently dealt with the retail trade.
Jelly ‘The Bulk’ Belly
Bulk is Jelly Belly’s middle name. Despite that less than half of our respondents voted in this slowly growing category, when they did vote, they knew who they wanted: Jelly Belly was the clear Category Driver winner for the fourth year in a row.
This company has maintained a pristine reputation in service and cleanliness like no other, as well as the title of “Supreme Category Manager,” reported some buyers. Bulk depends on freshness—something that Jelly Belly scores very high on. Many major retailers have used its colorful candies and bins as the highlight of the candy section. “They scream fun and quality,” stated a mass market respondent.
The company was also given high marks in “weeding out slow sellers,” as it has done even with its own JBz chocolate-coated candy line, which now has “only the best combination” jelly bean/chocolate flavors. “They are ahead of the game,” said a regional candy store buyer.
Silver Circle Award
Also for the fourth straight year, Brach’s was voted second-place winner in bulk. The company has obviously maintained a solid reputation as one of the forerunners of the category, thanks to its dependable, highly recognized brand name.
“The consistency is still there,” said a supermarket source. “Our older candy customers have a special connection with the candy, and we don’t dare change it.”
‘Your Highness,’ Hershey
There was no competition in the chocolate category this year: Hershey was clearly out in front, nailing more than 95 percent of our respondent’s first-place votes. In fact, Hershey was the only candy company named at least twice in all of our segments. Clearly though, chocolate was its strongest hold, which was due largely to its new and limited-edition candies. Pairing traditional favorites with limited offers (such as Hershey’s special Kit Kat package combining a regular Kit Kat bar with a new white chocolate Kit Kat) was another “trend in the making” that buyers and distributors praised the chocolate giant for. Respondents named the fourth quarter of last year as being “a phenomenal time” for Hershey. The Take 5 candy bar was one of the most frequently mentioned “best new chocolate bars.”
Silver Circle Award
Masterfoods retained its second-place status in chocolate, but it was not nearly as close behind Hershey as it was last year. For the few that did mention it as their “winner,” and this was mostly from the drug trade, it was because they “worked more closely with them on promotions.”
Masterfoods Masters It
Where it lost a few winning points in chocolate, it made up for it in a big way in non-chocolate—Masterfoods (Mars) pulled ahead as our non-chocolate Category Driver this year.
Respondents mentioned that “Skittles and Starburst” were a big reason why. “The flavors are wisely grouped into sours or tropical flavors that seem to appeal to adults as well as to kids,” says a buyer. “Seasonal versions of the candies, such as jelly beans, are a big hit for us,” adds a drugstore buyer.
Promotions and brand name visibility also were cited.
Silver Circle Award
Hershey was a close second in non-chocolate, as it was last year. Buyers tell us they are thinking mostly about Twizzlers when they report this, especially now that the company is creating a sugar-free variety of the popular licorice candy.
Lindt of Luxury
Lindt & Sprungli USA is what most of our respon­dents think of when they think of the cream of the crop in confections—for four years in a row. After leading in 2002 and 2003, then tying with Ghirardelli for first place in 2004, the company is once again, leading on its own.
“Lindt’s displays are the best in show,” said a distributor. “Their name is synonymous with luxury, and the more upscale brand of chocolate many people are indulging in on a daily basis.”
Thanks to their Lindor Truffles, the luxurious candy has had a lot of mass attention—especially packaged in stand-up bags and sold singly as changemakers. The trade also respects the company for “calling attention to its cocoa content” on select bars of dark chocolate. “This is a big deal in the news now, and our customers understand the benefits of darker chocolate,” says a drug buyer.
Silver Circle Award
Ghirardelli Chocolate may be a newer mass player, but it is certainly holding its own in our ranking. While it dropped back down to second-place, after being tied with Lindt for first last year, the praise for the company has not been lacking.
Smaller retailers commended the company for “understanding how to work well with us,” and larger chains recognized that their customers recognized the “great quality and packaging” of this “gourmet leader.”
“Plus, it was always the supreme baking chocolate. We carried it in the baking aisle before we carried it in the candy aisle and I suspect moms were eating it on its own,” says a supermarket buyer.
Hail Again, Hershey
As this and all past surveys show, our respondents never tire of voting for Hershey. For the second year in a row (and only the second time we’ve featured this candy segment in the survey), the leading candy company has been awarded the top spot in an increasingly important and “reborn” category for the industry—sugar-free.
“Overall, my vote goes to Hershey hands-down as the best confectionery supplier,” says a niche player who has found increased sales in the sugar-free section lately. “They have the best-tasting sugar-free products and my customers trust their name for whatever else they will unveil in the category in the future.”
In the near future, he is referring to the highly anticipated sugar-free Twizzlers line.
Putting the Hershey brand on sugar-free candies that live up to the name has apparently changed the category forever.
Silver Circle Award
Second place in this growing category goes to Russell Stover, which has really expanded its line of sugar-free and Net Carb candies, even for the holidays such as Easter and Valentine’s Day. Drugstores have rearranged space in gift aisles to make room for special endcaps of the lines. They continue to praise the line from all possible aspects—taste, variety, packaging, pricing, promotion and shipping.
Hershey Has It
While low-carb candy as a survey category didn’t last long, Better for You is expected to have some staying power. And Hershey, not surprisingly, is on top once again.
It’s true that only half of the respondents even voted in this category; many said they were “not sure” who to vote for at this time or what the term really meant. But for the ones who have become familiar with this increasingly popular food term, Hershey, with its Smartzone “nutrition bar,” as well as its low/no-sugar lines, was viewed as a trailblazer of treats that were lower in sugar, fat and carbs, and higher in nutrition.
Silver Circle Award
The same respondents that were impressed with Russell Stover’s low-sugar/net carb lines for our sugar-free category, knew that it could also cross over into this category. We expect that next year, more respondents will vote in this category as more consumables, in general, (as well as more treats) will be classified as “better for you.” But clearly for this year, Hershey and Russell Stover have a very good head start.