After almost a year of lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic, Ferrara has figured out ways for people to share their love with something sweet — and socially distanced.
Valentine's Day is the last major candy-giving holiday to happen during the lockdown, which started in the United States last March. The Ferrero-owned company approached it with some of the strategies that worked for other unconventionally commemorated traditional treat days in 2020: smaller pack sizes, fun innovations and a virtual component for connections.
Seasonal confections have been a big part of what Mariah Havens, Ferrara's director of seasonal marketing, called "the next normal" as people have stayed home and away from traditional gatherings.
"We've seen a lot of sales — whether it's candy dish, classroom exchange, and then gifting — to continue and to really remain strong," Havens said. "If you think about Valentine's Day, traditionally a majority of those sales happen like within the last week of it, and we're seeing more sales starting as early as Dec. 30. People are adapting."
According to the National Confectioners Association, Valentine's Day accounts for $3 billion in confectionery sales each year. This holiday, 86% of Americans will give chocolate and candy as a gift, the trade group said.
Ferrara, a top manufacturer of non-chocolate seasonal candy, has had a good year, Havens said. In fact, in 2020, most in-store retail seasonal sales kept up with previous years — if not grown, she said. While Ferrara has built up its e-commerce presence, the company believes that consumers' desire for seasonal treats are giving retailers reason to invest in candy, she said.
As the coronavirus pandemic has continued, people have turned to confections in all seasons. According to an email from the NCA, sales of chocolate confections were up about 5% in 2020, while non-chocolate sales were up about 3%.
Havens said that the pandemic has driven home something that the industry has always assumed.
"You always knew candy was recession-proof, right? I think it's proven that it's pandemic-proof as well," she said.
In fact, the pandemic is actually helping candy companies get better consumer data, she said. Previously, many consumers who enjoyed conversation hearts or Valentine-themed gummis may have gotten them from a co-worker, classmate or at a party. Because that kind of sharing isn't happening as much now, more consumers are buying confections for themselves, Havens said.
And since 87% of consumers do enjoy Valentine's Day candies, according to the NCA, there are many opportunities for candy makers to innovate and serve consumers.
Ferrara has taken its innovations in a few different directions this year. Its parent company, Ferrero, acquired the Mother's Cookies brand — best known for its pink and white frosted circus animal cookies — as part of its $1.3 billion acquisition of Kellogg's cookie brands in 2019. This year, the well-known cookies are in the shapes of X's and O's and in small bags that Havens said are suitable for a small gift to a classmate or friend, in person or from a distance.
While Ferrara's Brach's brand has offered conversation hearts featuring messages of love for years, it decided to target millennials and Gen Zers with its new Wisecracks: End the Conversation Hearts, which put less-than-loving statements on the candy. This year, those messages include "#NOPE" and "MEH."
"I think that's really going to speak to that younger, maybe millennial consumer of spicing up some of those things outside of the 'XOXO's of the world," Havens said.
"You always knew candy was recession proof, right? I think it's proven that it's pandemic proof as well."
Director of seasonal marketing, Ferrara
Ferrara's Trolli brand also has a new offering for Valentine's Day: huge and brightly colored sour gummi lips. Havens said these follow on the prior seasonal success of Trolli gummi hearts.
To play up on the more socially distanced Valentine's Day celebrations this year, Ferrara also has some digital and social media applications. The company has an online relationship quiz which selects the type of candy that is the consumer's "love language." Some who fill out the quiz will win a candygram for their loved one. The Brach's brand also has an Instagram filter that allows users to shoot a conversation heart arrow.
A sweet in-person future
Havens said the online marketing aspects and the new treats help people stay engaged with Ferrara's candy brands and their loved ones during a nontraditional time.
"You can't necessarily be with everyone you want, but you still send them a little something special in a way that still makes you feel good and also makes them think of the season in a way that's relevant," she said.
As COVID-19 vaccines roll out and consumers begin to think of a future that isn't defined by quarantine, it's likely that they will commemorate future candy-centric holidays a bit differently. There may be outdoor Easter egg hunts. Physical trick-or-treating may return. And in a year, groups of girlfriends may hit the town for a "Galentine's Day" celebration.
Havens said that she expects some of the new pandemic holiday traditions around sweets to stick around. A year of staying at home has helped Ferrara's brands find new fans. After all, since the pandemic dampened the popularity of foodservice, many consumers seeking adventure have tried new brands or different treats at the grocery store.
Aside from more repeat consumers, Havens said the pandemic has altered the way people interact. And while dating, parties and social events are likely to return to their traditional formats, consumers have discovered some interesting and fun things to do while in isolation.
"You're creating these new moments that you may not have had with these certain people," Havens said. "I think that's something that we're going to see continue for years to come, as just sort of a special new tradition that you've been able to bring into your family."