One-on-one: How the NCA’s John Downs is changing the candy industry
In an extensive interview, the NCA President talks about war on sugar, the Candy Caucus, and how long he thinks it will take to change U.S. Sugar Policy.
It’s no secret that sugar has faced some image issues lately.
The New York Times even recently advised readers on how to “Make 2020 the Year of Less Sugar.” It’s worth noting though that the article does not suggest that readers reach that goal by completely cutting out candy.
“Cutting added sugar doesn’t mean you’ll be eliminating sweet foods from your life entirely,” the article says. “Once you’ve got added sugar under control, the occasional treat of chocolate or dessert won’t derail you.”
It’s exactly the kind of sentence John Downs hopes gets included in pieces like that.
“There’s a war on sugar, but there's not a war on candy,” explains Downs. “That's one thing I'm proud of. I think we've led to that.”
Indeed, as president of the National Confectioners Association since 2014, he is likely the No. 1 person in the U.S. who has helped shaped that mindset. And he’s done it, with help from major U.S. confectionery manufacturers, by positioning confections as a treat.
Specifically, the NCA has pushed out important facts. For example, most people in the U.S. enjoy chocolate and candy 2-3 times per week, averaging just 40 calories and about one teaspoon of added sugar per day from confectionery items.
“Clearly [consumers] want to manage their sugar intake. And they've got an aversion to added sugar,” Downs explains. “But ... people know there's sugar in candy, so they know what they're getting, what they're going to purchase and consume. People utilize and consume our product with a great amount of love of common sense, using it as a treat.”
It also helps that Downs is no stranger to sugary products. Before joining the NCA he was in the Coca-Cola system for 28 years, most recently as a senior advisor to the president of Coca-Cola Americas. There’s little doubt that the experience influenced how he navigates the candy industry.
Confectionery has offered its own surprises for Downs, though. Specifically the degree to which candy is associated with emotional well-being.
“Consumers say emotional well-being is just as important as physical well-being, and chocolate and candy provide that moment in this stressed out, challenging world that we live in,” he says. “That's the thing that is so unique and so special for our category. And that was surprising to me coming from my former background [at Coca-Cola].”
He always thought Coke was “it” in terms of consumer branding, that it was the place to be in terms of an iconic global brand and how well it’s loved by so many people.
“And then I came into this industry and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was really blown away by the connection that consumers have with our product. That's a neat thing,” he says.
And thus he has spent the last few years working on making the industry even better and even more well-loved.
It’s all part of his multifaceted plan to help shape the overall image of the confectionery industry — something he says was missing before he got on board.
“The NCA was a solid organization and the meetings and events were good, but they didn't have a strong brand identity in Washington and they didn't have a real mission-driven, effective advocacy operation,” Downs explains.
The NCA’s PAC continues growth
Speaking of Washington, D.C., Downs has made his mark there as well. And it doesn’t hurt that the NCA is based in the political town.
His commitment to the NCA’s Political Action Committee is noteworthy. While the NCA had a PAC when Downs started in role, it was much less active. In the past, they would raise $30,000-$50,000 in a cycle. The most recent cycle? They raised $750,000 — making it the fourth largest political action committee in the food and beverage industry.
“Whether you like it or not, in politics today, money is a factor in terms of access. It just is the way it is,” Downs says. “And if you're an industry or you're a business and you don't have a political action committee, you're at a disadvantage because you don't have a seat at the table.”
The political involvement also has led to the creation of the Candy Caucus, made up of members of Congress whose districts are impacted by the confectionery industry. The hope is that the NCA can use the PAC to help influence policies related to health and nutrition, proposed marketing restrictions on candy, sugar policy, global trade, and food safety and labeling regulations that impact our collective ability to thrive and realize success in the marketplace.
“If we want our vision and our dream we had to create a candy caucus,” Downs said. “And I said, ‘We can't create a candy caucus unless we have an effective PAC to help them because they're going to look to us in terms of leadership for their re-election efforts and help them in their fundraising capabilities.’ So you see how it works?”
The work doesn’t stop there, though. The NCA if fully aware of how important it is to also articulate a case on policy.
“But you have to have the access to be able to then go ahead and present your case in an influential way,” Downs says. “Access just in and of itself doesn't get you there. You have got to have both.
It doesn’t stop with members of Congress. Downs also has encouraged more grassroots work from the NCA’s members.
“That’s the things they do back home, with the plant visits, the personal visits and utilizing the great currency of their products,” Downs explains. “It's a comprehensive strategy. But the PAC is an important imperative in the process.”
U.S. Sugar policy changes a long-term goal
Of course, you can’t talk about politics and candy without mentioning what many consider the most important U.S. public policy impacting the confectionery industry — U.S. sugar policy, of course.
Meant to help sugar farmers, it has created a pricing structure that makes sugar more expensive for U.S. manufacturers.
However, anyone hoping it will be solved overnight will likely be disappointed.
“In terms of getting major change to a long-standing federal policy, it's about a long game and you have to stay consistent,” Downs says. “And you really only have the opportunity every five years with the Farm Bill process.”
The Farm Bill is next set to be renewed in 2023.
When it comes to approaching this issue, Downs leans on some advice he read in the book, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Collins talks about having something called a BHAG — a “big, hairy, audacious goal.”
“In terms of policy, sugar reform is a big, hairy, audacious goal,” he explains. “And for a company or an organization to achieve a BHAG, the time frame is within 25 or 30 years to achieve that big, hairy, audacious goal. And so that was the framework that I've given our board to look at this issue in that time frame. My first Farm Bill on my watch, we didn't win. And we probably put together the best campaign and coalition we've ever had against this, but they're very formidable. They're formidable foes [the sugar industry]. Probably one of the strongest interest groups in this town to take on, no question.”
He said he understands members can get frustrated by how long it takes to see significant change, especially the ones who are greatly impacted by the policy.
“It requires a lot of grit and determination to stay in it,” Downs said. “And I feel bad that we're not able to do it in a timeframe people would think you could be able to get something done like this, but you just — you just can't. It's a long-term play. And so you really have to play the long game.”
NCA’s Strategic Plan provides navigation
Navigating all these issues can be a lot of handle, which is why Downs has done so much work on the NCA’s Strategic Planning.
The most recent version of the strategic plan is coming to an end, and the NCA is working on crafting its new vision for the future.
“It's kind of simple to say, but it's hard to do it in terms of, you know, staying focused, having the discipline, putting the resources and efforts against the things that matter the most,” Downs says. “And then also the execution, which is, that's the thinking I brought to the organization, is this Candy 360 in terms of the critical execution of a strategy, right? You can have a great strategy, but you also have to have the execution. And we have flawlessly executed against the plan.”
Specifically it includes three main areas of focus: Candy’s economic footprint, the Always a Treat initiative and emotional well-being.
And they push those messages to key stakeholders, including the media, policy makers, regulatory officials, thought leaders, opinion elites, non-governmental organizations, consumer influencers, retailers, wholesalers and more.
Downs describes the “Always a Treat” initiative as the NCA’s moonshot.
“It’s what we really stand for in terms of transparency, choice, variety, portion control and more education so we can help our consumers and their families manage their sugar intake while they enjoy their favorite treats,” Downs said.
The initiative includes a website featuring information about candy, as well as a specific page called, “Your Candy, Your Questions.” It features ingredient information, facts about sugar, and how to manage sugar intake.
Sweets and Snacks Expo evolves
Of course, when most people think of the NCA the first thing that still comes to mind is the Sweets and Snacks Expo, held each May in Chicago.
This year, the NCA has launched a new logo for the event as well as new brand messaging.
“We have new brand messaging and a new logo around this theme of actionable inspiration,” Downs says. “And we're going to go ahead and build on that for 2020. And driving the themes of innovation, driving the themes of new, driving the themes of making sure that we've got education sessions that are right in terms of being actionable for our retail attendees.”
This year’s event also will feature an expanded innovative products area and more to see in between the two halls.
The NCA also is working to put a larger focus on retail.
“We kind of put our foot in the water [in 2019], but then we saw a really good reaction from retail attendees about it,” Downs says. “And now we're going to do destination retail where we're going to go ahead and bring it to life in a store module aspect of it. And we're going to make that bigger [in 2020] as well.
The NCA added a second hall for the Expo in 2016, and Downs says the additional space has been a success. In fact, it’s been so successful that they eventually need to expand even more.
“We’ve got a little bit more space to play with, but we're running out of space in Chicago. We still have some, so we're not at a point where we have no space left for growth. But we might be there in three or four years, where then we're going to have to say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ Because we still have a fairly healthy waiting list.”
Time will tell how Downs will navigate that situation — but if his tenure at the NCA is any indication, he’ll likely approach it with tenacity, a relentless focus on playing offense, and success.
Editor’s note: As part of the same interview reported on in this article, NCA President John Downs discussed cannabis and its impact on the confectionery industry. Given how important that topic is, we decided to pull that out into a separate story. Read more about his thoughts on cannabis in this article: NCA’s John Downs on cannabis: ‘Things are happening so fast’