Observations From the Sweets & Snacks Expo

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Last week, the Sweets & Snacks Expo, the country’s largest confections trade show, was held here in Chicago.

It struck me that I’ve been attending candy trade shows for 22 years now (oof!): Since starting my career managing the Airheads brand, then overseeing brands like Trolli and Brach’s, and consulting with several confectionery companies.

While walking the Sweets & Snacks Expo show floor, I made a few observations, all applicable well beyond the world of candy:

Successful innovation cannot be based solely on your strengths.

Some things never change. Every year, dozens of new products are launched that scream, “Here’s something we can make.”

Really, guys, do we need another product that’s “like Nerds, but a little different?” Yes, it’s easy to make. But that’s not enough.

Much more rare is the product that screams, “Here’s something the consumer wants.” If you can match your strengths to a meaningful point of difference – one that meets a real need – then you have a shot at building a business. (This is exactly why Airheads grew so rapidly in the ‘90s.)

Failing that, you’re left with a product that’s easy to make, but nearly impossible to sell.

A great idea needs a great strategy.

Disturbing but true fact: The vast majority of the products launched at the Sweets & Snacks Expo will never be seen by the average consumer.

The number of available candy items in the U.S. is in the mid-five figures. But a retailer like Walmart may only carry about 600 items – or roughly 1% of the candy universe. And Walmart’s candy section is massive. Your local chain-grocery store carries far fewer items.

Marketers who focus only on the product idea, but not the realities of getting that product to the consumer, are doomed to fail. Your plan is not complete unless it addresses all the necessary victories – with the consumer, yes, but also with retailers, distribution channels, and, quite often, your own sales team.

Innovation is great. But without a viable go-to-market strategy, your game is over before it begins.

Brand still matters.

If you need proof, look no further than Jelly Belly. This year, they won the Most Innovative New Product Award in the non-chocolate category for their Draft Beer Jelly Beans***.

Surprisingly tasty.
Surprisingly tasty.

You heard right. They don’t have actual beer in them – bummer, I know – but they do taste an awful lot like a hefeweizen.

I don’t predict fantastic repeat purchase rates, but it’s certainly a buzz-worthy product.  (See what I did there?)  As usual, Jelly Belly’s booth was among the more heavily trafficked at the Sweets & Snacks Expo.

Jelly Belly’s doing more of what we expect of them – amazing facsimiles of flavors that amuse or shock. It’s hard to think of another confections brand that could launch beer-flavored anything and be taken seriously.

The lesson? A strong brand gives you options. Jelly Belly is a premium brand with a distinct, consistent personality. That gives them permission and credibility that weak, inconsistent brands simply don’t have.

For crying out loud, sample your products.

Some exhibitors guard their products as if they were carved from gold, seemingly doing all they can to keep them out of the hands of attendees.

I’ve never understood this. Candy and snacks are generally inexpensive to produce, and an expo like this delivers an audience that’s curious and ready to try new things. (Much more open-minded, it should be noted, than the typical retail consumer.)

And there’s no accounting for serendipity. A buyer may take your product home and share it with his teenage kids, and the next thing you know, it’s added to his store shelves.

If you’ve got a product you believe in, it’s generally advisable to get it into as many hands as possible. And sampling, of course, is not just for trade shows. (I’m doing a form of sampling by writing this post.)

Oh, one more thought: If the best you can come up with as a traffic-driver is “young women in revealing outfits,” it’s not too early to start working on your concept for next year’s trade show.


*** If you’re curious, the winner of the “Best in Show” award for the most innovative new product of all was York Minis – miniature versions of the York Peppermint Patties that have been around for decades. Draw whatever conclusions you like.


About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2014 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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