Non-Chocolate Days Are Here Again
By Renée M. Covino
The colorful candy category is bouncing back, largely led by sugar-free, limited edition, nostalgic, and flavor-intense/filled confections.
Recent confectionery numbers show that it’s not all about brown—chocolate isn’t the only candy in the spotlight these days. Even though year-end 2004 dollar sales figures from Information Resources Inc. (IRI) show the non-chocolate category to be fairly flat, the latest National Confectioners Association monthly shipment reports from manufacturers show the more colorful candy category to be up 5.5 percent in dollars and 7.1 percent in pounds through the first three months of the year. And within that group there are even bigger sub-category winners.
Though small in comparison to other sub-segments, sugar-free is the fastest growing of all non-chocolate categories, according to a multitude of industry research. Recently, the NCA reported that sugar-free candy sales are up 31 percent;  sugar-free gum, the pioneer of the recent low-sugar craze, is up nine percent.
“The category has been showing impressive double-digit growth for some time and is, without a doubt, a strong non-chocolate category,” says Al Bono, president and CEO of Quality Candy Company. “There are many serious players in the category that are doing a fine job with developing new products and support campaigns. As sugar substitutes become more advanced, the diabetic population will be drawn into the sugar-free category, which will broaden and grow at a larger pace than what we are seeing today,” he predicts.
All on its own, Hershey has experienced that. Hershey’s sugar-free products were first introduced in 2003. In 2004, retail take-away increased by 50 percent, according to the company. This year Hershey will continue the growth “with a re-launch of the current line and the introduction of new products,” says a spokesperson. Sugar-free Twizzlers was one such recent product launch met with high anticipation and subsequent praise from the industry.
This past Valentine’s Day, NECCO released its first sugar-free Conversation Hearts in five “intense fruit flavors,” and purposely with a different texture and imprint of sayings from its regular sugared Conversation Hearts.
“Because we sell the product in bulk, we really wanted customers to see that distinction in the two versions,” says Hans Becher, vice president of sales and marketing.
Many in the industry expect this type of non-chocolate sugar-free conversion to continue with other popular everyday and seasonal products. “The sugar-free segment continues to offer opportunities for all non-chocolate manufacturers, maintains Joe Buron, spokesperson for Arcor USA. “Non-chocolate products lend themselves well to the segment and can be offered in a variety of formats and product types.”  
This includes kid-oriented non-chocolate products such as Innovative Candy Concepts’ now well touted SmartChoice line of candy with no refined sugar.
Other manufacturers report they are in the process of making the easy switch of repackaging their low-carb candies from last year to low-sugar.
Limited edition
Non-chocolate manufacturers are now reaping the benefits of limited-edition varieties.
“Limited edition products bring news and excitement to the category, offering consumers something different or unique,” observes Buron. “This type of marketing/merchandising also offers manufacturers a testing ground for what may be new ‘everyday’ items in the future. The key here is to offer products that are unique, attractively packaged, priced well, with good margins and not available every day.” For 2005, Arcor offered five shippers featuring a variety of new products/limited editions.
New for 2005, Topps recently introduced its limited edition Sweet Shop flavors of Ring Pops: Root Beer Float, Shirley Temple, Sweet Cinnamon Swirl, Cotton Candy, and Caramel Apple.
Other vendors are using the limited-edition opportunity to coincide with an anniversary or special confectionery company event.
Quality Candy recently created a limited edition King Leo tin to commemorate the brand’s 100-year anniversary. “It was an excellent way to reinforce to consumers and our buyers the King Leo heritage,” maintains Bono.
Along that same line, “Limited Edition was a very important element to the 50th anniversary of the PEEPS brand in 2003,” says Matthew Petronio, vice president of customer and brand development for Just Born, makers of PEEPS. The company continues to incorporate limited-edition seasonal items to its line of marshmallow shapes and the even newer decorating kits.
Nostalgic non-chocolates
With baby boomers and even younger adults and teens, favorite non-chocolate candy items that they remember enjoying as kids are making a comeback.
Nostalgic packaging of the products in tins and other old-fashioned-styled boxes and twist bags is part of the trend, too. More manufacturers are quickly catching on and obliging; some are even re-vamping the exact packaging look and logo of candies from the past.
“Nostalgia is important for candy because it harkens back to the carefree days of youth,” says Petronio. “For our Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales brands, the boxes recall the fun times spent in theaters with family and friends. Importantly, candy preferences are carried into adulthood and oftentimes passed on to children.”
At Quality Candy, “our King Leo and Gilliam brands have been in distribution for 100 years so nostalgia and retro plays an important part of our campaigns and product lines,” says Bono. The Gilliam line has 36 old fashioned .4- and .5-ounce stick flavors, such as root beer, watermelon, cotton candy, bubblegum and sassafras. Gilliam also has an old fashioned Drop line that consists of 16 flavors including horehound, root beer, watermelon, and licorice—all in wooden kegs.
The King Leo brand and product line consists of soft puffs and sticks sold in bag, count good tubs and gable boxes.
“The whole nostalgia thing is really big with our national accounts,” says Becher. “We’re finding more and more are pulling out our NECCO American Classics and creating a special nostalgic candy section.” NECCO has made it even easier by developing a NECCO American Classics shipper, with the tag line “connecting generations.”
The company has recently introduced NECCO Candy Chews, which are still being called “nostalgic” because they were created to resemble old-style taffy.
Hershey maintains that “nostalgia is an important part of the strength of our iconic brands and non-chocolate is no exception.” According to a company spokesperson, “Twizzlers and Jolly Rancher are loved consumer brands that represent happy, fun-filled memories.”
In time for 2006 Valentine’s Day and Easter sales, Adams & Brooks has just unveiled new heart-shaped Twirl Pops featuring Tweety and Pepe Le Pew and Penelope, as well as Easter Twirl Pops featuring Tweety and Bugs Bunny. These oversized striped candy treats are a flashback to the striped lollipops of old—typically found at fairs and circuses.
Flavor intensity
The race is on for non-chocolate manufacturers to blast out the most flavor-intense/sometimes filled and/or soft and chewy non-chocolate confectionery treats.
“The current trend supports strong growth in soft chewy candies such as gummies and fruit snacks, filled lollipops, gum and extreme flavors such as sours,” assesses Buron. Arcor has just introduced two liquid-filled products: Mr. Pop’s Evolution, a bubble-gum filled lollipop featuring a hard cherry-flavored outside with a bubble-gum and sour-cherry-flavored liquid center; and Poosh, featuring a fruity flavor in a liquid-filled bubble gum surrounded by a crunchy colored shell.
From Cadbury Adams comes two new non-chocolate “taste explosions” — Sour Patch Connectors and Swedish Fish Aqualife.
Sour Patch Connectors combine a variety of sour and sweet flavor blasts, allowing more than 28 different combinations.
Cadbury Adams has also unveiled the first new shapes from Swedish Fish since the brand’s inception in 1958: Swedish Fish Aqualife consists of Orange Sea Horses, Lime Whales, Lemon Starfish, Grape Blowfish, Red Swedish Fish and Blue Raspberry Dolphins.
Hershey is in on the flavor intense trend with its just-released additions to its Jolly Rancher line: Jolly Ranchers Wild Berry Fruit Flavors, Jolly Rancher Screaming Sourz and Jolly Rancher Rocks.
Recently, Just Born unveiled its Hot Tamales Fire product and Mike and Ike Tangy Twister candies. “They comprise what we refer to as our ‘intense’ products with very extreme flavor,” maintains Petronio.