The first visit to the local sweetshop has been a time-honoured rite of passage for many children – warm coins clutched fiercely in tiny hands; what on earth should you choose among the cornucopia of confectionery delights arrayed in boxes and jars around the shelves?
The emotional charge held by confectionery is powerful – and it lingers. Nicholas Whittaker, author of Sweet Talk, a history of confectionery in the UK, argues that the memory of “small sweets” has a resonance with consumers, inclining us to engage with smaller brands of confectionery.
“When there were thousands of sweet makers, the inventiveness was amazing. Kids loved it – it was anarchic, inventive, creative,” he says.
These days, confectionery is dominated by big players, such as Cadbury’s and Nestlé. The challenge for the big names is to generate that emotional attachment from their packaging and marketing.
It’s a tough mission. “Fear is a barrier to change,” says Simon Preece, group client services director at Elmwood, who argues they are risk averse simply because they have more to lose. “When marketing managers brief design agencies, they are putting their career in your hands.”
Given that eight out of 10 confectionery product launches fail, according to Anthem Worldwide senior account director David Timothy, that’s hardly surprising. “For well-known sector players, the risks around getting it wrong can outweigh the benefits.” Whittaker agrees. “Shelf standout is a complete myth. Wherever I go, I see bland corporate imagery on shelf displays in the shops of London, Paris or Pisa. That’s not stand out – that’s a dearth of imagination. Confectionery should be all about imagination, fun and creativity in sugar form.”
Most industry observers agree that the result is a two-speed market for design and packaging. “Big brands have recognisability at their disposal,” says Martyn Withers, co-founder of Embrace Brands. “They’re almost part of the furniture. They have a look and feel that is well-established.”
But that’s a double-edged sword, suggests We Are Pure owner and creative partner David Rogers. “The big boys suffer because everything has to be very formulaic,” he says. “You have to be very brave to put something new in the market. Brands like Cadbury’s and Nestlé are reluctant to change their packaging.”
And with good reason. Withers cites a recent revamp of Thorntons’ boxed chocolate range as a painful example of a brand misstep. “They look hideous – garish, cheap and nasty,” he says. “It doesn’t represent Thorntons. It doesn’t achieve good standout.”
Innovation can happen in two ways, argues Preece – corporate driven and incremental, in things like flavour variants, size and format, or via real breakthroughs in attitude and inventiveness. “It all comes down to who is bold enough to take the risks,” he says.
“Innovation comes from the smaller brands,” adds Withers, who argues that they must rely on packaging to create the disruption they need in the category. “They tend to try an awful lot harder from the packaging perspective to gain cut-through.”
The cost of advertising is another factor, says Rogers, who points out that packaging is often the only chance small brands have to sell their product. “They must connect with the hearts of consumers – get an emotional buy-in straight away.”
To walk the walk, Rogers created his own chocolate brand – My World – which he sold into Waitrose in 2009. “There’s always room for something quirky and individual,” he says. “Smaller retailers like to take a chance.”
So can smaller brands. It’s hard to imagine a confectionery giant creating a new identity for its flagship brands and launching seven new products in the way that BrandOpus did for premium chocolate brand Willie’s Cacao this year.
The recession also helps. According to several retail analysts, cash-strapped consumers are indulging in “small treats”. This helps to open up the higher-value niche confectionery market. The key advantage for niche brands is that a higher price point – such as £9.50 for a jar – justifies premium packaging, and consumer expectation requires more effort in this area.
The problem is that a niche brand is only bought on special occasions or for novelty value. By definition, they don’t have the longevity of the countline giants. Nor are they a threat to the status quo.
Anthem’s Timothy suggests one solution for big brands to compete on this level is to section off their innovation departments “so that they can act small again; where teams of innovators can work without rules”.
But generally big brands are constrained by their very scale. Huge production runs and established manufacturing and packing facilities can’t be changed overnight. In response, bigger players rely on special limited edition variants, such as this year’s Kit Kat ‘Choose a Chunky Champion’ promotion from Nestlé, which encouraged consumers to vote on four variant flavours via a Facebook page, or Cadbury’s launch of a character-based Christmas range last year.
Other change is incremental and subtle. Cadbury’s has done interesting work with substrates in its packaging based on consumer psychology. “Sweet wrapping is mainly shiny and waxy,” says Elmwood’s Preece. “Psychologically it looks a bit fatty.”
In response, Cadbury’s is using matt finishing on foil to reflect less light and trigger an emotional response of calmness. It also has the benefit of standing out among brighter rivals – ironically by standing back from the noise on-shelf.
Economic constraints are also affecting the big brands, though in the opposite direction. Dragon Rouge account director Meg Patel points out that sharing is a key driver for the big confectionery names, as home entertaining replaces going out.
“Rather than introducing new products in an already saturated market, manufacturers are increasingly introducing sharing-format variations instead,” she says, citing the recent launch of a bigger bag, more to share pack design by both Starburst and Skittles. Another development is the growth of the small trial pack size in supermarkets.
Finally, a big, lumbering confectionery shark can swallow up its nimbler rival minnows to get the benefit of their small brand cachet. It’s a strategy pursued by Cadbury’s with its acquisition of both The Natural Confectionery Company and niche chocolate brand Green & Black’s in the mid-2000s, while Nestlé preferred a four-year joint-venture agreement with high-end Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini that ended earlier this year.
Ultimately confectionery is a mature segment. Perhaps that’s why confectionery brands are trying to innovate sideways, into cross-category launches, such as the striking blend of Philadelphia soft cheese and Cadbury’s chocolate. But maybe all this frantic branding activity is missing the point.
As Whittaker says, wistfully: “The sweets should be the packaging. The rest is just mere paper.”
Five of the best
Smarties’ 75th Anniversary
Dave Timothy, senior account director at Anthem Worldwide, cites the Smarties 75th Anniversary packaging. This went back to the past to re-engage consumers with a previous incarnation of the pack design. It maximised the colour contrast between background and logo and used a simpler font to optimise legibility. The logo was also straightened allowing it to be extended horizontally on pack. He says: “It took an already highly recognisable pack and made it stand out – connecting with existing, previous and new Smarties fans alike.”
The Natural Confectionery Company’s reassuring message of permissibility for anxious parents has helped the brand gain standout against bigger rivals. Its design, by Pearlfisher, is intended to keep younger consumers engaged with the brand.
Nestle’s Easter Egg range
Completing a move to introduce 100% recyclable packaging for all its Easter Egg range gave a boost to Nestlé’s environmental credentials this year. It replaced the rigid plastic it had used in its mug eggs with FSC approved cardboard, and used compostable film for pack windows. The company claims the culmination of the six-year programme will save 726 tonnes of plastic waste going to landfill this year.
Rococo Chocolates Easter Eggs
The 2012 range of hand-painted Easter eggs are based on designs by textile artist Donna Wilson. This example features designs hand-painted on white chocolate over a layer of dark chocolate, making the egg design part of the packaging experience. The package is finished off with the company’s distinctively styled blue and white Rococo box.
The clip-on lid fastener and rubber ring-seal give a distinctly home-made feel to Curious Chocolate’s stylish glass jar packaging, which is used for a range of products from chocolate-covered “olives” (actually scorched almonds) and praline eggs to drinking chocolate (either milk or white). The typography is apparently inspired by a visit to an old letterpress workshop in Amsterdam.
Picture credit: Mark Bailey