Who knew that candy marketing success could hinge on the age profile of a honey bee mascot, the amount of yellow and red on a package, small changes in texture? When Spangler Candy recently acquired and relaunched Bit-O-Honey it was thinking hard about all of those nuances that make a choice pop on the shelves. You may not have heard of Spangler Candy as a company, but a list of its candy brands is a nostalgic trip through your childhood trick or treat bag. In addition to being the largest manufacturer of candy canes in the US, its portfolio includes Dum Dum lollipops, Circus Peanuts, Sweethearts, Necco Wafers. The family-owned company has been based in the small town of Bryan, Ohio, since its founding in 1906. Adding to its roster of nostalgia, the company acquired the Bit-O-Honey brand several years ago, and recently rebranded and revised the candy mainstay. Now, playing with iconic packaging and imagery is always a challenge, so it caught our notice. To talk about the sweet art of candy marketing and the Bit-O-Honey rebrand, Evan Brock, VP of marketing for Spangler joined us this week. You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.
MediaPost: Let's dig into the trick or treat bag. Give us a little more background on Spangler. It’s a family business, it has been a fixture in Bryan for over a century.
Evan Brock: We're best known for Dum Dums lollipops. That's our biggest brand. We make about 2 billion Dum Dums every year. And we believe that our factory here is actually the largest lollipop factory in the world. Our brand portfolio really consists of several what we consider iconic brands with great history that are nationally distributed. Necco Wafers is more of a niche candy, but one with an extremely loyal following. We acquired those in 2018, along with the Sweethearts brand, the conversation hearts that you get on Valentine’s Day. They're just part of the Valentine fabric. And then we're the largest manufacturer of candy canes as well. We've been making Dum Dums and candy canes since the 1950s. Those are really our two largest product lines. Bit-O-Honey is our newest brand. We acquired that in 2020.
MP: These are the kinds of icons you grab off the shelf as an “of course” buy at Halloween, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day. What kind of marketing is necessary for these brands?
Evan Brock: Just to give you a sense of our size here. We're a mid-size candy company. We're not small, but we're also not the Hershey’s and Mars of the world. We have about 550 employees here in Bryan and we consider ourselves to just be very good stewards of these brands. We take time to understand them, and really know what makes these brands tick.
And certainly, at regular intervals, studying the brands to see how perceptions of them change. But there's no 30-million-dollar marketing budget here at Spangler. We make measured investments in packaging design and creative content and product innovation. But we’re also just very careful not to make unnecessary changes to these brands as well. They've got a great history. And as long as we're taking good care of them, we know that they're still going to be a long time favorite of candy shoppers out there.
MP: I think one of the things that I noticed in recent years is that you've played around both with repackaging and repositioning and re-messaging on your Sweethearts brand, because that's a brand you can play with.
Brock: Sweethearts like the sayings and evolving those is just something that the brand is known for, and that's another one that is a fairly recent acquisition of ours. We acquired that brand in 2018. There's just a lot of natural momentum that that brand has around Valentine's Day. But we've actually had a lot of success recently, with outbound licensing for Sweethearts. We had a collaboration with Crocs. They made a Sweethearts branded Clog. We have a partnership with Kellogg's as well. They make co-branded Fruit Loops. Sweethearts where they change the shape of the fruit loop during the Valentine season to a heart shape. And that's been really successful. The brand is just part of the Valentine fabric. And the sayings are a big part of it. We've had love songs. Pet names were another theme. We continue to introduce some fresh sayings each year, in addition to the classic sayings that that you would expect to find on Sweethearts.
MP: Let's move to Bit-O-Honey. What was the strategy behind acquiring this particular brand? Now, Bit-O-Honey has bounced around among, I think, multiple owners over the years for the last couple of decades. Why was this a property that you wanted to take a piece of?
Brock: Spangler, I would say, has a knack for identifying undervalued brands in the candy industry. We are candy makers, first. We are expert candy manufacturers first, and when you have the type of longevity that Spangler has had in the candy industry, you really get to know this industry inside and out. When Bit-O-Honey came up for sale we said, oh, there's a brand that is probably a little underappreciated. We investigated immediately. And the second question that we asked ourselves just as manufacturers is, hey, can we make this thing? And not only can we make it; can we do a great job of making this candy? And once that happened, we figured out that we could. Some of our other brands are a little bit more seasonal in nature, whereas Bit-O-Honey is, you know, more of an everyday candy. And that added some balance just to our portfolio of brands. But like I said, we take a lot of pride in just being expert candy manufacturers. Since we've acquired Bit-O-Honey, we think we've done a good job making it so far.
MP: What were the key changes that you made, and one of the things that you made you made sure that you were referencing an old if outdated design, but still needed to reference the old.
Brock: There's a few changes to cover here. I'll just jump back to the manufacturing piece of it. We did not change the recipe for Bit-O-Honey. There was nothing about the flavor that we changed. But we made some investments in the equipment to allow us to make it more consistently, and also make it just a little bit softer than what it had been in the past, and I'll get to that softness attribute here in a minute. But those were important changes. The candy needed to be made more consistently. And it needed to be a little softer.
From a visual standpoint, after doing the research, we felt like we needed to do a better job of calling out the flavors and the ingredients that go into Bit-O-Honey. It's made with honey, almonds, milk, and there's really no other candy that kind of combines those ingredients. It's a very unique flavor profile in all of candy. And the packaging just was not doing a great job of selling that. If you take a look at the new packaging, we have this dripping honey, and there's images of almonds now, and it's just doing, I think, a lot better job of selling those unique ingredients. The other piece, and this has gotten the most discussion and feedback is the bee. When we inherited Bit-O-Honey, the bee that was on the package was very juvenile looking. And it was just this very kind of kiddish looking bee, and we knew just based on the fact that, hey, this is an adult candy like we got to evolve this guy and he needs to look a little bit more adult, a little more grown up. The other purpose that the bee serves on the package, is the bees are really a pretty distinctive asset and we knew we needed some more distinctive elements that were a little bit more memorable than what the current package is. The bee is a little more grown up, and he's definitely more distinctive than what he was in in the previous package.
We have a lot of discussions around the colors. If you look at the packaging that we inherited, it was primarily red, which we felt just like wasn't a great fit with again selling that ingredient profile of the of Bit-O-Honey. We knew we wanted to introduce the honey color in a in a bigger way. But we had a version of the package that we tested with shoppers that was all the honey color, there was completely no red in it, and it really tested pretty well. And we were tempted to just ditch the red altogether. But we had a lot of discussion on just how much red to keep in the package. We landed on retaining some of that red again to just to help that recognition on shelf. In the end keeping those brand colors was a good move. I'll be happy to share some results of the velocity increases that we've seen since we updated the package. But those were some key things. The final thing, and I'll just mention this quick, I talked about the softness of the candy. We actually changed the material. Bit-O-Honey is sold in peg bags, what in the industry we call pillow bags. And we changed the material of the bag, so it feels a little softer in your hand when you pick the bag up on shelf. And we thought that was important. The candy is a little softer these days, which we know that Bit-O-Honey fans were looking for. And even down to the detail of the material of the bag film being a little softer, we thought wasn't an important change.
MP: Tell us a little about the results so far in terms of sales.
Brock: The new packaging rolled out in the April-May time period. It's still not in the market everywhere but with the retailers that really kind of got it first we're seeing a velocity increase of anywhere from 20 to 40% since the revised packaging has rolled out. Obviously, we're really excited, that's a pretty significant step change in velocity for a refresh.
MP: Do you think is that being driven mainly by the packaging or is there a marketing strategy behind it, too?
Brock: I actually think it's being driven a lot by the packaging. We've been pretty focused on just getting that that correct. I think what's happening is the new pack is getting noticed more on shelf. It's just doing a better job of visually competing on shelf. And we're getting some trial and people are discovering that, hey the candy is a little bit softer, it’s a little bit more consistent. What we learned in the research was that people that tried the candy that had it quite a while just across the board, they were like, man, this is a lot better than I remember. The new packaging is doing its job in driving trial and people are rediscovering this candy.