Family-owned Smarties Keeps the Nostalgia Brand Rolling

Ghosts and goblins don’t scare the leaders of the Smarties Candy Co.

In fact, the trio of execs who run the family-owned business embrace all things Halloween—a holiday they spend at least nine months prepping for and during which they sell millions of the iconic pill-sized, fruit-flavored candies.

“It’s our Super Bowl,” said Liz Dee, co-president alongside her sister, Jessica Dee Sawyer, and cousin, Sarah Dee. “It’s by far our biggest sales season.”

But what chills them to the bone is the thought of tinkering with the beloved brand their grandfather launched 70 years ago. At 95, founder Edward Dee still shows up at the office nearly every day.

And yet the candy honchos started engineering a brand makeover when they took the reins together in 2017, updating the widely recognized Smarties logo and packaging. That included brightening colors, changing the font and tweaking its silhouette.

“It was terrifying,” Liz Dee said of the process. “It’s part of the challenge of a nostalgia brand. It needed a refresh, but we knew it was a risk to touch anything.”

Thankfully, there’s been minimal blowback from traditionalists since the spiffed-up look debuted in 2018, Dee said, and the New Jersey-based company now churns out more than 2 billion rolls of the treats each year (when placed end to end, that stretches back and forth from New York to California 35 times).

The brand remodel is an example of the way the current management has modernized the company (most heavily in its infrastructure and marketing) while guarding its distinctive qualities (its recipe and family ownership remain unchanged).

(1) Edward “Eddie” Dee was already a third-generation candy maker when he arrived in the U.S. from England. He established Ce De Candy Inc. in 1949, later changing the name to Smarties because he wanted to encourage education. (2) The 2 billion rolls made each year could wrap around the earth more than six times. (3) Company leaders rolled out brighter colors, new font and tweaked silhouette in 2018. (4) Six colors — yellow, orange, purple, green, pink and white — are randomly mixed for a standard-sized 15-tablet roll. It’s rare that any two rolls are exactly alike. (5) Lipstick, discontinued in 2011, contained one cherry-flavored lipstick-shaped piece of candy. (6) Smarties leans into its ‘grammable aesthetic in social media posts.
Courtesy of Smarties

“We would never mess with the formula,” Dee said. “And we’re committed to keeping this a family business, no matter how many times we’re asked to sell.”

The co-presidents tout their history, often telling the story of Edward Dee’s arrival to the U.S. by boat from England in the late 1940s. With a rented garage as a home base in New Jersey and equipment repurposed from World War II, Dee pioneered the pressed-sugar tablets that became a dime-store staple and trick-or-treat handout.

He opened two North American factories in Union, N.J., and Ontario, Canada. They run 24 hours a day, and have been upgraded with solar panels and automated technology.

Without the deep pockets of its larger multibrand competitors, Smarties has never been a mainstream advertiser. But its six pastel colors and playable pellets seem purpose-built for social media, and the team has taken advantage of the obvious aesthetics with eye-catching Facebook and Instagram posts. The platforms have quickly amassed about 1.2 million followers.

All in the Family: A study from the Kellogg School found that less than 15% of family-owned firms survive into third-generation leadership. That puts the Smarties Candy Co. in a small subset of American businesses. Another way it’s broken the corporate mold is by naming three c-suite execs of equal rank, all female. Co-presidents Liz Dee, Sarah Dee and Jessica Dee Sawyer took over in 2017 from two previous generations of Dee candy makers. Some of the jobs they held along the way: Working the production line at the New Jersey manufacturing plant, including driving a forklift (Sarah); counting candy rolls with a stopwatch as they left the wrapping machines to determine speed (Jessica); and shadowing the controller, creating social media accounts and writing website copy (Liz).
Courtesy of Smarties

There’s another marketing hook that’s proven especially effective on millennial moms and fans with restrictive diets: Smarties are gluten-, fat- and dairy-free. They contain no peanuts, animal products, wheat or soy, and they’re vegan. One standard roll of 15 candies is 25 calories.

“It was a happy accident that we checked all those boxes,” Liz Dee said. “It’s important for us to communicate that now. In earlier days, it would’ve never been part of the messaging.”

Like many other heritage brands, Smarties leans into its no-fuss predictability and its throwback appeal.

“It’s not expensive, it’s not difficult to find, it’s not complicated,” Dee said. “When the world can be so chaotic, people sometimes just need a simple pleasure that reminds them of their childhoods.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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