By Mary Ellen Kuhn
The candy category boasts some of the packaged goods industry’s real brand gems — classic, time-tested and with a wealth of history behind them. What are the secrets to preserving the promise of these cherished brand icons while keeping them contemporary?
Hershey’s Kisses will celebrate their 100th birthday on July 7, 2007. M&M’s Chocolate Candies made their debut in 1941 and gained popularity among World War II GIs, who enjoyed having the melt-resistant candies included in their rations. Topps’ Bazooka bubble gum has been around since the 1930s. And that most classic of marshmallow confections, Peeps, celebrated its 50th birthday in 2003.
Far from showing signs of age, these brands are vibrant and healthy, clearly in their prime. And they’re not alone. Even the briefest of strolls down a candy aisle demonstrates that the category boasts a true treasure chest of celebrated, iconic brands.
Thus it’s not a bit surprising that consumers have formed some strong relationships with candy brands. Consider Russell Stover’s 94-year-old Whitman’s Sampler brand. In recent brand personality research, consumers spoke fondly of Whitman’s, describing the Sampler as “a good friend,” among other descriptive phrases, reports John O’Hara, Russell Stover vice president of advertising and public relations. There are approximately 200 Internet fan sites for Peeps. And the M&M’s brand enjoys 100 percent consumer awareness.
But as life experience demonstrates, all relationships require nurturing. So in this special report, we focus on some of the keys to preserving and protecting the luster of the candy category’s brand treasures. We also asked some experts to share their brand preservation commandments.
Certainly, capitalizing on brand power isn’t a slam dunk, particularly in today’s environment of economic instability, where brand loyalty has waned among some anxious consumers.
“Brand loyalty can be correlated with socio-economic status,” says Elise Neils, managing director of Intangible Business LLC, Milwaukee, Wis., a branding consultancy. “Middle- to upper-class consumers are just as loyal today as in the past, while those with lesser incomes are not as loyal as they were in the past.
“Cost savings is a greater determining factor in purchases currently than in the past because a greater percentage of people are in the lower-middle and lower-class, who are feeling inflation and the slowed economy at this point,” Neils observes.
Consider as well the sheer volume of products crowding the marketplace. In 2005, more than 3,500 new candy products flooded the category, according to Datamonitor’s ProductscanOnline. So while product differentiation is a helpful component in establishing brand power (See sidebar, “Brand Differentiation Dissected”), it is harder than ever to achieve.
“Twenty years ago it was possible to differentiate yourself on your attributes, but that’s evaporated,” says Simon Sinek of New York City-based Sinek Partners, a strategic marketing consultancy.
In this challenging climate, the following commandments from Sinek and other branding pros deserve some serious consideration.
Know your brand. Never forget what your brand is about. Sinek offers this shorthand for getting to the heart of a brand’s personality. It’s all about the following two questions: What do you do? And why should I care?
“Those that can answer the second question are those that have a clear sense of their brand personality,” Sinek stresses.
Honor your consumers. Brands are defined by “what the audience perceives. [They’re] not necessarily about what the company is trying to say,” says Beth Barbee, president of Darwin, a Denver-based brand strategy company.
“If you look at the most powerful brands in the world — Disney, Starbucks, Apple — they are 100 percent consistent with their loyal customers,” says Sinek. Purchasers of Apple computer and electronics products are “people who want to challenge the status quo,” for example, says Sinek.
Joe Villiano, assistant brand manager for Marshmallow Peeps at Just Born, Inc., says the core audience for Peeps is something the company keeps firmly in mind, even as it has moved to extend the brand via new products and licensed merchandise. “Obviously, we wouldn’t extend ourselves to something that’s not family-friendly,” says Villiano. “It involves looking at who the current consumers are (parents and kids are the core) and seeing what kinds of products work for them.”
Nurture the emotional connection. A substantial 70 percent of a consumer’s reaction to a brand is emotional, calculates Robert Passikoff, Ph.D., president of Brand Keys Inc., a New York City-based brand and consumer loyalty consulting company. Passikoff developed a proprietary system of psychological inquiry to help marketers understand what consumers really think about their brands (vs. what they say they think).
Passikoff paraphrases management guru Peter Drucker. “Peter Drucker said either innovate or have loyal customers,” Passikoff relates. Because true innovation is relatively rare, it is critical to have an understanding of “the emotional bond that exists between your brand and your consumer.”
Russ Meyer, chief strategy officer at the San Francisco office of brand consultancy Landor Associates, explains that how consumers feel about a brand is what helps differentiate it from other brands.
Jack Gordon, chief executive officer of Cincinnati-based Acupoll Research Inc., a new product research and testing company, agrees. “I’ve done a lot of work with new and established brands,” says Gordon, a former Procter & Gamble executive. “And it’s always been my opinion that it’s the emotional appeal that causes consumers to bond with the brand.”
Be true to your brand. To preserve brand integrity, it’s important not to stray from the essence of the brand. “Your brand can only stand for one thing ever,” Sinek asserts. “As soon as you start adding products that stand for something different, you’ll damage the brand.”
“Don’t try to position yourself in a way that is fundamentally what you’re not,” Gordon cautions. If you do, he warns, “Your equity starts eroding very quickly.”
The current fixation on the obesity issue is a case in point. The attention the issue is getting has tempted some candy makers to focus on health messages. But such an approach may lack authenticity. “I think it’s disingenuous,” says Sinek. “Just because there’s a trend for healthiness doesn’t mean that everyone wants everything that they take into their body to all of a sudden be healthy.”
Stay in touch with your brand personality. “The brand personality should stem from the brand essence,” says Darwin’s Barbee. “For example, for a brand like Hershey, which is a large and well-established brand, the brand has a certain stability — the power and strength of being a long-time player in the category — that probably would not make it appropriate to do something wacky and irreverent,” says Barbee.
“With a brand like Nestlé’s Wonka, however, that brand is all about being offbeat and fun and risk-taking and whimsical,” she observes. “That brand can take bigger brand risks because the brand personality implies that it’s just a little more out there.”
In addition, all the elements of a brand — it’s packaging, advertising and the product itself — should work together and should reflect the brand personality.
Barbee cited Target’s own-label Choxie chocolate as an example of a confectionery product that loses touch with the brand personality. Language on the packaging suggests that the chocolate is upscale, notes Barbee. But, she adds, “I didn’t think that the packaging conveys that it is high-end. Even the name Choxie doesn’t sound very upscale or sophisticated. I think there is a disconnect.”
Keep your promises. Walter Landor, founder of Landor Associates, gets credit for the classic observation that “a brand is a promise.” And to protect a brand’s integrity, the promise must not be broken.
“The thing that you have to be careful of, I think, is over-promising,” says Acupoll’s Gordon. “Think about McDonald’s and it’s repositioning as a more healthful product line in the early ‘90s. They started positioning themselves in a way that was fundamentally not believable.”
Donatella Giacometti, chief brand officer of Ten Second World Inc., a New York City-based brand company, agrees with the promise premise. “If you’re promising that it [a candy bar] is 30 percent bigger, it better really feel bigger and be flagged in that way,” she says. “So that everything that the consumer has come to expect is checked off the list. And then you have a shot [of marketplace success]. If you mess up on any of those things, then there’s a problem.”