A Hundred year Kiss

July 2007 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the world’s most famous and beloved kisses. It was a hundred years ago, in July 1907, that the Hershey Chocolate Company first sold the ubiquitous Hershey’s Kisses candy. And so powerful was the romantic allure of this diminutive chocolate that over 80 million are now produced every single day!

Hershey’s Kisses is not the only candy brand or flavor with such remarkable endurance. The Hershey Milk Chocolate Bar, as quintessentially American as Coca Cola, was first sold in 1900. Most candies and candy bars on the market today have demonstrated a staying power that brand managers would happily sacrifice their first born children to achieve. In a 21st century world of breakneck innovation and planned obsolescence, these humble sugar bombs are the corporate equivalent of immortality. With candy, what was good enough for your grandparents is almost always good enough for you. Sugar is sugar is sugar.

The candy business, like the soda pop business, is beautiful. The products are simple, made by machines in the billions, unchanged, and unaltered, year after year. There are no balance sheet destroying silicon-fab upgrades and new 32 nanometer manufacturing processes every 18 months. There are no faster clock cycles, no Web 3.0 and no disruptive technologies popping up every 10 minutes. Nobody tries to stick cameras, MP3 players and web browsers into candy bars (for now anyway). All you have to do is make sure that each new generation of children grows to love the peanut delights of your Snickers bar. And can get their fix anywhere and wherever they want. Advertise and distribute. Innovation is slow, change is rare, but the profits are steady, volumes are high, and there is always Halloween.

It wasn’t always like this. According to some estimates, between 1900 and 1940, there were over 30,000 distinct brands of candy bars selling in United States alone! By the early 1900s, Milton Hershey had proven that chocolate, sugar and dairy were the foundation for a successful industry, with terrific repeat user characteristics. His 5 cent Hershey’s Chocolate Bars had become a constitutional right. What followed was a candy boom not unlike the dot.com boom of a century later. Anybody with access to sugar, chocolate, dairy and nuts could make a candy bar and anybody and everybody did. Hundreds of producers, thousands of candies tussled for survival, until only the best remained. And remain they did. Consider the history of some of the following classics that either you or your kids have surely eaten (or coveted) at one time or another:

With its Hershey chocolate bar selling for a mere nickel, Hershey soon dominated the United States. In 1908, it added Hershey’s Milk Chocolate with Almonds to its product line. The chocolate craze wasn’t confined to the United States alone. As early as 1824, an Englishman named John Cadbury began selling cocoa and chocolate in his shop in Birmingham, England. By the end of the century, Cadbury’s had become a major manufacturer of cocoa based products. The real breakthrough came in 1905, when Cadbury’s introduced the Dairy Milk Chocolate Bar. The chocolate was so popular that in much of the world the words chocolate and Cadbury’s became synonymous. 250 million Cadbury’s are sold each year, and Cadbury-Schweppes one of the world’s largest food companies.

Hershey and Cadbury both owed their success to a Swiss maker of condensed milk. In the 1890s, Daniel Peter and Henry Nestle (who had perfected the art of making sweetened condensed milk), discovered that chocolate combined with Nestle’s condensed milk made for a pretty tasty treat. Milk chocolate was born. Even though Hershey and Cadbury’s first commercialized milk chocolate, Nestle’s soon followed with its own brands. By 1906, the world had received its first sampling of Nestle’s Crunch and by 1919, Nestle’s Milk Chocolate. A hundred years and dozens of acquisitions later, Nestle is a food processing megacorp with billions in annual sales.

Until 1920, the Milky Way was the galaxy in which you and I live, having been so named (in English) by Chaucer. Similarly, Mars was best known as a red planet and God of War. Then, Frank C. Mars, a native of Tacoma, Washington, succeeded in capturing the flavor of a popular milk shake inside a candy bar. He named his invention: The MilkyWay. By 1925, the Milky Way had been transformed from a galaxy into a now legendary trademark. In 1930, Mars then solidified his position as the God of Candies with Snickers. Snickers is so enduring and pervasive that in the 21st century, it is the #1 selling candy bar in the world. How many 77 year old computers can you say that about? In an odd twist, a growing underground now enjoys its Snickers dipped in batter and deep fried.

Mars didn’t stop with the Snickers. In 1932, he turned the Three Musketeers into candy. In 1936, he launched the Mars Bar. In 1941 came the tour-de-force: M&Ms. Yes, M&Ms are over 65 years old. Older than many of your parents and even some of your grandparents. But what most Americans probably don’t know is that M&Ms were copied from Smarties, first introduced by Nestle in 1937 and hugely popular outside the United States to this day. Frank Mars first encountered Smarties during the Spanish Civil War, when he observed soldiers consuming them by the sackful. The rest, as they say, is history. But for Smarties, Americans would not have voted to turn their M&Ms blue (in 1993) or purple (2002).

How rich did all this make the Mars family? In 2005, the Mars food processing conglomerate, still privately held, had annual sales of $18 billion.

Hershey, Cadbury’s, Mars and Nestle (The Big Four) were not the only dominant sugar merchants. 1920, the Chicago based Curtis Candy Company began selling a candy bar named Baby Ruth. Curtis cleverly named its new confection after Baby Ruth, the daughter of former President Grover Cleveland, who had died in 1904 at the tender age of 9. In one of history’s curious coincidences (you be the judge), the name closely resembled that of a soon to be American icon: Babe Ruth. Curtis followed this marketing coup with audacious promotions such as airdropping thousands of Baby Ruth bars over Philadelphia, each floating on its own parachute. With Baby Ruth selling well, in 1923, Curtis introduced yet another American masterpiece. For before Bart Simpson warned that “Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger“, long before Bart Simpson was even born, there was Butterfinger.

And in 1928, an erstwhile dairy farmer who worked for Hershey, famously combined chocolate with peanut butter, and has ever since been remembered in millions of nightly prayers. Working in his basement in Hershey, Pennsylvania, H.B. Reese poured peanut butter into little cups made of Hershey’s chocolate and created Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Kit-Kat anyone? In 1935, British candy maker Rowntree based in York launched Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp. Perhaps realizing that the name didn’t do the crisp and crunchy snack justice, Rowntree changed the candy’s name to Kit-Kat Chocolate Crisp in 1937. The name was shorted just Kit-Kat after World War II. The brand name was supposedly inspired by The Kit-Cat Club, an 18th century literary society and club based in London. Just why Rowntree decided that a literary society should supply the name of a candy bar is not known. It is more likely that a key executive took inspiration from the pioneering Kit-Kat nightclub of the Roaring Twenties where he no doubt spent many a literary hour.

Seventy years later, Kit-Kat is crunchy as ever and the world’s second most popular candy bar.

The candy industry has consolidated heavily since the glory days of the 1920s and 30s, and the Big Four now own virtually all of the major brands.

Brand Launched Now Owned By
Tootsie Roll 1896 Tootsie Roll
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar 1900 Hershey
Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate 1905 Cadbury-Schweppes
Nestle’s Crunch 1906 Nestle
Hershey’s Kisses 1907 Hershey
Toblerone 1907 Kraft
Hershey Milk Chocolate With Almonds 1908 Hershey
Nestle’s Milk Chocolate 1919 Nestle
Baby Ruth 1920 Nestle
Milky Way 1920 Mars
Oh Henry 1920 Nestle
Mounds 1921 Hershey
Butterfinger 1923 Nestle
Mr.Goodbar 1925 Hershey
Goobers 1925 Nestle
Milk Duds 1926 Hershey
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup 1928 Hershey
Snickers 1930 Mars
Three Musketeers 1932 Mars
Kit-Kat 1935 Nestle
Mars Bar 1936 Mars
Smarties 1937 Nestle
Rollos 1938 Nestle
York Peppermint Pattie 1940 Hershey
M&Ms 1941 Mars
Almond Joy 1946 Hershey
Junior Mints 1949 Hershey

Further reading:

The Great American Candy Bar Book by Ray Broeke

Various corporate web sites.

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