The Birth of White Mystery Airheads (and What It Taught Me)

It was early 1993.  I was less than a year out of college, and the Assistant Brand Manager of Airheads candy.  (A title that no doubt made my parents very proud.)

After the successful launch of Blue Raspberry Airheads in August 1992, we were searching for the next new flavor to add to our lineup.

We took all the standard steps – reviewing category sales data, reading trade magazines, meeting with flavor suppliers, etc.

And taking the standard steps, unsurprisingly, resulted in a list of the usual suspects.

If it’s already trendy, you’re late to the game.

The problem with launching a trendy flavor is that you’re consciously creating a “me-too” product.  And if it’s already trendy, you’re late to the game.  Asking your flavor suppliers about up-and-coming “fringe” flavors feels better – until you remember that your competitors are asking the same question of the same suppliers, and receiving the same answers.

So we were a little stuck.

The Idea That Sparked White Mystery Airheads

I could say that the idea for White Mystery Airheads came to me in a white-hot flash of inspiration.  That I am a wellspring of genius ideas, and that I must consciously fight these ideas off, or I would get nothing done in the course of a day.

I could say that, but it would be a complete lie.

As it happened, around this time I was reviewing a stack of letters from Airheads fans.  Though our customer service department handled the replies, I was in the habit of reading all consumer correspondence.  And this habit was about to pay huge dividends.

White Mystery Airheads package
White Mystery Airheads, today.

Reviewing consumer feedback first-hand, whether it’s good feedback or bad, is always advisable.  But when your fans range in age from about six to eighteen, it’s an absolute blast.

Some took the formal route, as if they were writing their Congressman.  (One of my favorites began: “Let me start with my name.  My name is Phil Pace.”)  Many would ask for free candy, which was odd, because an Airhead cost less than a stamp.  Several would offer ideas for flavors, packaging or distribution.  (“Can you put Airheads in the vending machine at my school?  Thanks.”)  A few took the time to draw a “new and improved” Airheads logo for us.  I’d hang the really good ones on my office door so others could enjoy them too.

One letter was particularly intriguing.  A teenager suggested, among several ideas, that we make a white bar with a mystery flavor.

Huh.  There was nothing like it on the market, and it seemed like kind of idea that might have legs.  A “testable proposition,” if you will.

This letter hit my desk at the perfect time.  Score one for serendipity.

The Head-to-Head Test

Our “usual suspects” research had resulted in a leading candidate.  I honestly don’t recall what it was; for the sake of this discussion, let’s call it Fruit Punch, though it definitely was not Fruit Punch.  So we set out to do a head-to-head test of Fruit Punch and White Mystery.

As was our practice, we made a small batch of each flavor.  We then arranged to bring these samples to a local elementary school.  We’d survey students individually, usually in the hallway, so as not to disrupt a lesson.  Then we’d give the school an honorarium.  It was an easy way to get a quick read, and it fit our extremely limited marketing budget.

We used a 5-point scale to assess how much the kids liked the candy they had just tasted.  In this test, the Fruit Punch and White Mystery flavors had scored almost identically.

It was what happened after the test that made the difference.

The Moment of Truth

As I was packing up my materials in the hallway, the students that I had just surveyed were led out of their classroom.  And they were actively debating the white candy they had just tasted.

            “It was coconut!”

            “Nuh-uh!  Mine was lemon!”

            “It was strawberry, fool!”

            “Hey Mister” – meaning me – “What flavor was the white candy really?”

A dozen eager fourth-graders turned to hear my answer: “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’m not allowed to tell you that.”  They did not like this answer.

On the questionnaire for the White Mystery samples, we had the foresight to ask the students what flavor they thought it was, after tasting it.

The shocker: Only 5% of kids got it right.

What the kids didn’t know is that, for the purposes of this taste-test, we had used one of the most popular Airheads flavors, since we had plenty on hand.  We just turned the bar white.

It was a flavor they all knew, and yet 95% of students couldn’t identify it.

You know the old saying “We taste first with our eyes?”  I had just witnessed proof of that.

I had also witnessed kids who were engaged.  Kids who took firm positions, certain that they were right and that their pals were wrong.  Kids who asked me for another sample, just so they could “be sure.”

Noticeably, nobody was talking about Fruit Punch.

So much for the 5-point scale.  I returned to the office and told my boss what had just happened.  Also: “We gotta launch White Mystery Airheads, pronto.”

A Success From Day One

Matthew Fenton, in costume as "White Mystery Man," with Tom Wessling, July 1993.
The author, dressed as “White Mystery Man,” with Tom Wessling of our promotions agency, Optimum Group, launching White Mystery Airheads to our broker network, July 1993. (If you’re wondering why my costume is comprised of soccer shorts and a shower cap, well, that’s what life was like on an underfunded challenger brand.)

White Mystery Airheads hit the market later in the summer of 1993.

It quickly shot up to the #2 sales position in the Airheads lineup.  It’s still on the market today, nearly 26 years later.

White Mystery has been extended into frozen treats, a Taco Bell Freeze flavor and even a limited edition Jones Soda flavor.

And a few years after the launch of White Mystery Airheads, Starburst launched its own mystery flavor, also white.  Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery.

What I Learned From the Birth of White Mystery Airheads

I was lucky to have had this experience so early in my career, because it taught me a number of lessons I’ve carried with me since:

  • Get your hands dirty with data.  It would have been more time-efficient to hire a research firm to conduct the taste-test.  And they probably would have reported that “You have two winners! Fruit Punch and White Mystery both scored well.”  But I would have missed the interaction between the students, and that made all the difference.  As Doug Hall says in his terrific new book, “Driving Eureka!”: “The more you see, feel and touch the data, the deeper your understanding becomes.”  (This quote was one inspiration for this post – thanks, Doug!)
  • Feedback is a gift.  Treat it accordingly.  Reading the actual words of consumers is so much more valuable than reviewing a report that aggregates that feedback into a few pie charts.  Sure, the PowerPoint is easier to digest.  But it also lacks nuance.  If your consumers are going to take the time to give you this gift, you’d be a fool not to want to spend some time with it.
  • If you want a different result, do something different.  Had we stuck to the industry research, we would have arrived at a “safer” flavor.  Essentially, we would have copied a competitor or jumped on a trend.  Doing so may have even resulted in a decent-selling product.  But it wouldn’t have had the buzz or personality of a White Mystery.  We knew at the time it was a risk: “Will kids understand what White Mystery is?  Will they ‘get it’?”  But as with any smart risk, the upside was tremendous.
  • As a brand leader, it’s not your job to have all the big ideas.  It is, however, your job to facilitate the big ideas, and to help them live.  So take the ego out of the equation.  Keep your antennae up.  Surround yourself with sharp people with different points of view.  Read both broadly and deeply.  Live and breathe the culture of your consumers.  Grab good ideas from wherever you can.  The more you can make unexpected connections, the more powerful the ideas that you will shepherd into life.

P.S. So What Is the White Mystery Airheads Flavor, Anyways?

This is usually among the first questions I’m asked when someone finds out I had a hand in growing the Airheads brand.  It’s also asked in online forums like Reddit and Quora.

So here’s the answer…

I don’t know for sure.  And if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.  Sorry to disappoint you.

The longer answer: I knew as recently as 1997, when I left Van Melle (now Perfetti Van Melle), the company that makes Airheads.  But it’s a trade secret, so I can’t share.  And there’s a good chance the answer has changed in the intervening 22 years.

So let’s go with this: Much like the fourth-graders who tasted that initial batch, the flavor of White Mystery Airheads is whatever you think it is.

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 2019 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.