There was one sweet that always caused a stir (and one that our mothers never ever approved of): bubble gum. The sweet rebel in the group. Just saying its name felt dangerous, as if we were using a naughty word … and we loved it. All the reasons we shouldn’t chew it made us want it more. It was our first real demonstration of defiance. It was a way to assert ourselves and define who we were as young adults.
We all have personal reasons for buying into the candy category: a quick treat, a sugar rush, to freshen breath, to increase concentration, an indulgence, a gift. But there is one certain truth -- this category has the ability to drive deep emotions and surface memories to a specific time and place in one’s life. We continue to be hardwired to respond to sugary treats and the rewards they provide.
Unfortunately, the category has fallen foul of flavor proliferation and is dominated by a category language that is dull and expected. Most brands are following the same unimaginative graphic cues and common visual language elements. Brands need to understand their core assets across all touchpoints, and recognize that packaging and the use of flavor can be a driving force of differentiation in many categories when approached properly and consistently. Simply placing a wet green leaf on a package and declaring spearmint is lazy design thinking at best. Surely there must be alternative solutions out there.
In recent years there have been attempts to break free of the boilerplate wet leaf tactic and open up with flavor, pattern and texture. What occurred was a typical case of follow the leader, without asking if this is right for the brand in that it will resonate with the consumer. The major players in the gum category need to look into the mirror and recall their own rebellious childhoods.
The aim is to engage brand loyalists and attract new consumers to the category. In the past 18 months, we have witnessed the sad decline of thinking from the “flavor game” to the “value proposition” in an effort to entice consumers back to the category. As a result of the value proposition, brand cannibalization has been the best result, while U.S. and global sales continue to decline at an alarming pace. The question remains: is anyone paying attention?
The entire gum category is wide open for a leader to step forward, not just from an aesthetic perspective but also from a relevant, merchandising and marketing perspective. We see shelf sets that seem old and uninviting, with brands appearing to have been resurrected from the 1970s and new pretenders on the block dishing out every graphic cliché.
Even the location of gum in-store seems expected and uninviting. Gum still fails, despite having tons of time beyond the standard five-second “impulse” purchase rule. When advertising, media and packaging at shelf collectively fail, consumers are left bewildered and confused as to which gum to select and why.
The issue facing the gum industry stretches beyond the borders of the U.S. In emerging markets, children do not have access to buying their own gum and candy. Rather, candy is given as a gift or a reward. Though it is a treat to be cherished, it is still not an independent purchase by the child -- a rite of passage -- and doesn’t create an emotional connection.
In addition, there are the challenges of distribution, access and different taste profiles to address with the consumer abroad. Pricey Western brands are viewed as premium and alien. American brand names may be difficult for the native tongue to pronounce or convey a different meaning in the region. These complexities only create more barriers to self-selection for today’s youth, and further hinder migration into the category.
Now that there is little migration into the category, we have a wonderful opportunity to develop a basic language to elicit consumers’ memories around the products of their childhood, reconnecting the emotion with purposefulness and rewards.
It’s time to give consumers a reason to chew again.