Ice Breakers Cool Blasts Chews

The battle to get Americans chewing again

Will Papa has one of the hardest jobs in the US food industry: getting Americans to chew more gum. So challenged is the category – US sales have fallen 15 percent to $3.5-billion since 2009 – Hershey Co’s research chief isn’t even calling his latest product gum.

Ice Breakers Cool Blast Chews, which dissolve in a burst of mint after about 10 chomps, straddle the sweet spot between mints (which are still selling well) and gum (which isn’t).

“It’s a classic example of innovating at the seams between two categories,” said Papa, who learned the art of product mashups at Procter & Gamble. “You have to be on the lookout for that unmet need.”

Papa has high hopes for Cool Blast Chews, which went on sale this month. But competition is fierce, as startups and entrenched players alike rush out new flavours and packaging.

Wrigley got some traction with an Orbit gum pack designed to fit snugly into a car cupholder. In an effort to attract health-conscious consumers, the industry is selling all-natural varieties, including Glee Gum’s aspartame-free product in recyclable pouches. Trident created a limited-edition pumpkin spice gum; Wrigley a “dessert delights” line that has included such flavours as Root Beer Float and Peach Cobbler.

So far, the rush to re-invent gum hasn’t made much difference. Last year, Americans chewed gum 1.4 times a week on average, down 30 percent from 2009, according to NPD. Aging boomers are giving up the habit because their dental work isn’t up to the challenge. Many millennials never developed a taste for gum, preferring savoury snacks with foodie cred: kangaroo jerky, say, or coconut cacao kale chips.

And fewer Americans are smoking so there’s less demand for gum to cover tobacco breath.

Wailing manufacturers

“You can hear the wailing from the manufacturers,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, who analyzes the food industry for market researcher Mintel. “Gum is stuck.”

There’s one bright spot: China, where gum sales almost doubled to $3-billion from 2009 to 2014 and are projected to grow an average of 6 percent through 2018, according to Euromonitor. But the food companies can’t turn their backs on the US, where they still generate a substantial portion of revenue.

When Papa arrived at Hershey in 2012, he was handed a long list of product ideas and was told to find something with lasting appeal. Like many people, Papa had given up on gum because he was sick of having to find a place to discard the chewed wad. Then he was shown a prototype for Cool Blast Chews and remembered how much he missed gum.

In his 30 years at P&G, Papa learned to search for what R&D types call unarticulated niches – stuff people don’t know they want. Sometimes that meant combining two products into one. P&G’s Pert Plus, introduced in 1987, put shampoo and conditioner in one bottle. It sold briskly in its day. Cool Blast Chews would combine mints and gum in one package.

The product required a strong minty flavour, enough texture to ensure about 10 chomps and the chemistry to dissolve on the tongue. In tests, Papa observed consumers trying the chews, all the while watching to see if people took the chew out of their mouth and stuck it under a table. No one did. Once the recipe had been perfected, Hershey created a production process to make the gum-mint mashup at a factory in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nicholas Fereday, a food analyst at Rabobank, said it’s risky “trying to please everyone when you go for the middle ground” but that convenience and novelty could attract consumers. Hershey is positioning Cool Blast Chews as a kind of stealth breath freshener that can be used “discretely before and during any social interaction.”

Juicy Fruit

Gum makers didn’t always have to try so hard. Like soda, the original product was pretty basic: synthetic rubber, sweetener and flavouring. And like the soda makers, food companies have long relied heavily on marketing to keep people chewing.

In the late 1800s, William Wrigley Jr gave away sticks of gum to help sell soap and other household products, according to Jennifer Mathews, a Trinity University professor who wrote a history of gum. Eventually, he realised the gum was more popular and introduced Juicy Fruit and Spearmint in 1893. In 1915, Wrigley mailed packs to the 1.5-million American households listed in the phone book. Four years later, he erected billboards shaped like gum wrappers on the train route from Trenton, New Jersey to Atlantic City.

The industry kept sales growing for the next half-century by positioning gum as fun. In the late 1970s, Adams, a candy company founded in the 19th century, debuted Freshen Up. It delivered a burst of liquid flavour and inspired a ribald nickname.

Wrigley introduced its first bubble gum, Hubba Bubba, in 1979. Big League Chew arrived a year later, shredded gum in a aluminum foil pouch that gave Little Leaguers a tobacco-free entree to the rituals of their favourite players. In 1988, the fad was Bubble Tape: six feet of gum rolled into a round package that fit in a back pocket.

Food companies also made health claims for gum. For years, Trident’s slogan was: “Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gums for their patients who chew gum.” Wrigley and Cadbury promoted several sugarless brands as cavity-fighters and brandished the American Dental Association’s seal of approval. Gum was sold to whiten smiles, strengthen tooth enamel and kill bad breath germs. Last decade, Wrigley got a patent to sell Viagra gum but let it expire.

The experimentation has only accelerated since Americans began chewing less. In 2011, Kraft Foods Group’s snack business, which became Mondelez International, introduced Trident Vitality, a gum packed with vitamins. It lasted two years. Alert, Wrigley caffeine-infused gum, had a two-week run in 2013, pulled from the market after the FDA announced plans to investigate caffeinated food.

Now Wrigley, a division of closely held Mars, is getting back to fun after spending too long emphasising “functional benefits” such as fresh breath, said John Starkey, the company’s vice president of US gum and mints.

“There are emotional reasons that people chew gum — in particular fun,” he said. “I think we’ve steered too far from the fundamental reason people chew gum.”

In January, Wrigley released the first national Juicy Fruit television ads in 10 years. One features two dudes in a locker room making rude noises with their armpits. The sophomoric humor is aimed squarely at teens and young adults, who Starkey called the lifeblood of the category.

The ad has been viewed more than seven million times on YouTube, but commenters smelled desperation and asked: Why would an iconic brand want to associate itself with passing gas?

Source: Bloomberg

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