Walking through a store around Valentine’s Day often feels like teleporting into a cartoon, as hearts and symbols of love are in just about every aisle.
The season really comes alive in the candy and gift aisles, where heart-shaped boxes and special treats await. And candy plays a critical role as Valentine’s Day continues to evolve from a romantic holiday to a celebration of love and appreciation between friends and families. According to Eat Out Eat Well, during the Valentine's Day season, $448 million is spent on candy. That's 58 million pounds of chocolate and 36 million heart-shaped boxes.
That’s a lot of emotion disguised as chocolate, making this one of the most important times of the year for candy manufacturers. There’s already a built-in market for the products, but with so many choices, a candy company must find a way to stand out.
Candy manufacturers sweeten their offerings
Michael Rabinovitz, Valentine’s Day senior brand manager for The Hershey Company, said that each year, the company discovers ways to reinvent iconic favorites and create innovative and exciting products to expand its portfolio.
“We tap into consumer trends and insights to inform what flavors and textures we introduce each season,” he told Food Dive by email. “Hershey is constantly thinking of ways to reimagine classics and create new innovated products.”
In 2017, that includes Kit Kat Miniatures Red Velvet, which are made with the rich taste of red velvet cake and covered in white crème, and Hershey’s Kisses White Cookie Cupcake, which boast a satisfying cookie crunch inside.
Stephanie Lakritz, director of consumer and market insights for Mars Chocolate North America, noted the company recently introduced more indulgent and dessert-like flavors for which consumers are clamoring — including cheesecake.
“Products that allow you to personalize this season are standing out as well this year,” she told Food Dive. “You can think of these items as the new and updated version of a valentine — by incorporating personalized and card-like elements to the sweets themselves, consumers can give a treat and thoughtful note all in one.”
These include M&Ms with cupid messages or Snickers mini bags with “Be Mine” and other classic Valentine’s Day conversation sayings. This year, Life Savers also has heart-shaped gummies with Valentine’s Day messages mixed with traditional Life Savers — something that appeals to consumers who are looking for something other than chocolate this holiday season.
Stu Haack, marketing and PR manager for Ethel M Chocolates, said the company’s premium chocolates are designed to make memories with loved ones.
“We use solar energy and no preservatives to make our chocolate, which adds a bit of extra freshness to every bite,” she told Food Dive by email. “In addition, we are a highly seasonal brand, which means we come out with new packaging and pieces for every key season, which help our products stand out on the shelf and let our customers know that we are premium chocolate.”
For Valentine’s Day 2017, the company added some new flavors, including spicy versions of old favorites and a brand new candy bar version of one of its favorite peanut butter pieces. In addition, it is bringing back some Mars customer favorites under the Ethel M Chocolates banner.
Making it stand out
Most chocolate purchased around Valentine’s Day is for gifts, so it’s important for companies to produce items that are ready to be shared.
“We look for ways to make our packaging stand out beyond the typical Valentine’s Day heart by playing with different colors, shapes and bag options,” Lakritz said. “Our Dove Love Bird chocolates come in a deep purple and lavender packaging with printed birds as a way to stand out from the crowd. We also launched Altoids Love Tins this year with a collection of unique messages on the tins that capitalize on date-night prep.”
This Valentine’s Day, Mars has also released special packaging for teachers.
“Our research shows that 91% of gifts to teachers on Valentine’s Day are chocolate,” Lakritz said. “In fact, Dove and M&Ms are the No. 1 and No. 3 gifts given to teachers. So this year, we wanted to create something special for them to enjoy.”
At Hershey, Rabinovitz said that the goal for Valentine’s Day is to make its iconic packaging eye-catching without losing its signature look.
“We add seasonally appropriate colors and characters, but remain true to fan favorites so consumers can connect with our brands,” he said.
Recently, Ethel M Chocolates did a complete overhaul of its year-round packaging to concentrate more on telling its brand story.
“From collectible tins to soft-touch paper boxes, we bring a premium touch to all of our packaging. But even more than the premium feel, we are continuing to find new ways to tell our story,” Haack said. “One thing we are exploring is how to use near field communication on or in our packaging to introduce a bit of technology, video and storytelling to engage our customers with our brand on another level.”
Vermont Nut Free Chocolates differentiates itself by having all its product made in a completely peanut-and-tree nut-free environment.
“We ensure that all of our packaging highlights our nut-free guarantee, in addition to being on-trend with the seasons and holidays,” Mark Elvidge, founder and CEO of the company, told Food Dive. “We recently reworked the packaging for many of our bestselling products to make our guarantee more prominent. Since our customers come from all ages, we make sure that our packaging can appeal to broad range of tastes.”
For 2017, the company is offering new gift packs including the “True Love” and “‘Lil Sweetheart” assortments.
Sweet store exclusives
Vermont Nut Free Chocolates’ retail strategy is for its loyal and valuable mail-order customers to make recommendations based on where they frequently shop.
“We have had great success reaching out to retailers suggested by these customers, and once we can get a listing, we drive additional traffic to the stores through social targeting and e-mail campaigns to our existing customer base in the geographic vicinity of the store,” Elvidge said. “We have also been working with some commissioned sales representatives and broker groups to help expand our wholesale reach. Our distributor network is also increasing quite nicely and we are currently in discussions with a few potential new ones as well.”
Rabinovitz noted that Hershey considers current trends and consumer interests in its product marketing and retail strategy. The company also has store-specific items, such as White Cookie Cupcake Candies sold only at Target, and Hershey’s Kisses Milk Chocolate Conversation Candies Recordable Heart Box, available only at Wal-Mart.
To increase its presence at more stores and websites, Mars provides unique packaging and flavor opportunities.
“We partner with our customers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, for unique offerings based on consumer insights and what we think their shoppers will enjoy for the season,” Lakritz said. “This year, for example, we have exclusive White Chocolate Cheesecake M&Ms and Skittles in heart shape gift box with Walmart and Dove Valentine’s mix with X and O wrappers for Target.”
Haack noted Ethel M Chocolates is always seeking new channels to offer its products.
“You can already find us on Amazon, but we are hoping to be Prime eligible this year. We are working with a few other marketplaces as well,” he said. “As for brick-and-mortar, you can find as at several specialty locations in the Southwest, and we fully intend to grow over the next few years. This is a big part of our plan moving forward.”
Candy everybody wants
Sweet treats on Valentine’s Day aren’t limited to chocolate. Necco’s Sweethearts — the one’s with the messages such as “Be Mine” or “True Love” — has long been one of the most popular Valentine’s Day gifts. The company said it made more than a billion candy hearts in 2017, including sugar-free and Spanish versions.
But it’s clear that Americans crave chocolate on Valentine’s Day. In research conducted by Mars, 94% of consumers said they’d rather receive chocolate than flowers this year, and 92% said they planned to gift chocolate over a greeting card.
“We also have interesting data on the chocolate flavors consumers crave most on Valentine’s Day,” Lakritz said. “According to our research, 34% of consumers covet caramel in a box of chocolate and 24% would take chocolate-covered nuts; chocolate-filled, cream-filled and coconut were tied for the third most coveted chocolate box treat with 13% each."
Chocolate treats aren’t just for women on Valentine’s Day, either. Men and women purchase chocolate for the holiday in nearly even numbers: 52% of chocolate purchases are made by women and 48% by men.