As jelly beans and other confections lined shelves ahead of Easter this spring, candy and snack giant Hershey was thinking ahead to summer. The chocolate maker was working four weeks earlier than normal to increase the supply of 6-pack Hershey bars carried on shelves and to ensure store displays were stocked with all the ingredients needed to make the popular s'mores snack.
The shift in strategy was unheard of for Hershey, which in the past feared that getting an early jump with s'mores would cannibalize Easter sales. But the company saw demand for the gooey treat soar during the pandemic with more growth predicted in the coming months. Executives were confident s'mores making and Easter were two distinct occasions and Hershey couldn't afford to wait as demand for its multipack chocolate bars were poised to surge ahead of the summer season.
"While the environment continues to change, ... I think [s'mores] is an occasion that consumers are really going to lean into throughout the summer," said Bill Maclean, Hershey's senior marketing director. "In fact, the data would suggest [consumers will] maybe even embrace it more than last year."
Hershey chocolate bars are the company's second most popular brand, behind Reese's, and the third most consumed confection in the U.S., according to IRI data cited by the company. Hershey brand bars posted more than $1.6 billion in sales in 2020.
For Hershey, the increased popularity of s'mores not only generates a boost in sales but also helps promote a feeling of trust and togetherness that have long been core to the company's image. S'mores also promote the Hershey name, and attract more consumers into becoming users of its other products.
S'mores do "a tremendous amount to bring the Hershey brand to the forefront and reengage with the consumer in a way that we haven’t for many years," Maclean said. "It’s extremely meaningful from a brand standpoint as we think about our equity and what we represent in consumers' lives."
Americans in 2020 spent more time in their backyards making s'mores by the fire as they looked for ways to enjoy themselves with a close-knit group of friends and family during the pandemic. Hershey observed that in areas where COVID-19 cases were on the rise, demand for s'mores-related ingredients surged. In 2020, sales of 6-pack Hershey bars increased more than $70 million from the prior year.
Even as the U.S. shows signs of being able to put the outbreak behind it, Maclean said the environment remains "really ripe" for s'mores as people look for ways to spend time with friends, family or neighbors they haven't seen in a while. People also invested heavily in their homes during the pandemic or plan to this year — such as by installing fire pits, pools and hot tubs, and purchasing backyard furniture — and they are eager to continue enjoying these improvements.
An estimated 60% of people say they plan to make s'mores this summer compared to 51% during the same period last year, according to data compiled by the Pennsylvania-based company. Hershey found 14% plan to make s'mores after not doing it last summer, 16% more frequently than a year ago and 24% about the same. The survey also found 5% plan to do it less than 2020 and 5% expect to forgo the activity after doing it last year.
Hershey's work with s'mores during COVID-19 provided the company with valuable information. It learned to more accurately predict future demand for Hershey six-bar packs so it could adjust inventory levels and production.
The company also was able to learn how to shift its messaging to make sure it has the right one in place to connect with the consumer. For example, one Hershey commercial in 2020 that showed people in a neighborhood sharing s'mores wasn't resonating with shoppers early during the pandemic. Instead, the company shifted to an ad focusing more on enjoying s’mores in the backyard.
The experience extended beyond just s'mores. Hershey was able to use the insight and processes put in place to better predict and respond to demand for its chocolate in other parts of its portfolio — such as at-home baking, which was seeing increased demand for chips, cocoa and syrup.
During the pandemic, Hershey succeeded in getting consumers who hadn't made s'mores in a while or ever to try the treat. The challenge going forward will be to keep those users making s'mores.
"Trial is one of the hardest things that a brand can do, and so the ability to get trial on s'mores we hadn't had" was incredibly valuable, Maclean said. “Now, we want to make sure that we’re reinforcing with our media and creative to keep it top of mind to tap into the retrial we had on the brand."