One could be forgiven for thinking it’s all sweetness and light in the UK sugar confectionery market. British consumers are spurring a considerable growth in sales and displaying an increasing appetite for the goodies on offer. But where do the major players go from here? Some are persuading adults that sweeties can be fun for grown-ups too, while others are tapping the potential of functional foods, as Clare Harman discovers.

Sugar is the fastest growing category within the confectionery sector and analysts expect this trend to continue. Consumer sales in the Fruit and Fun segment identified by IRI Info Scan (jellies, gums, and chews, for example) increased by 16% last year in value terms, with total sales reaching £440m. At the same time, boiled fruit sweets grew by 18% to £142m, and everyday mints eased up 1% to £166m in consumer sales. The challenge now is for the few companies that dominate the sector to find ways of capitalising on its growth, and to lay the ground work for expansion into related areas, to guarantee future returns and sales.

Mars dominates the sugar confectionery sector in the UK. Of the Fruit and Fun sector, Mars’ Starburst chew (originally Opal Fruits, until a name change in the 1990s) is the undisputed brand leader, racking up consumer sales of £52m last year. This year, the company is launching a major new pack design and a variety of new flavours as sub-variants of the popular chew, including “Tropical Chew.” The variation on a theme product, Starburst Joosters, is also being produced in a limited edition tropical variety, which Mars believes “adds real novelty to a growing sugar category, with its unique product format.”

The sector giants are committed to growing brand families to boost sales. Via its 1988 acquisition of Rowntree, Nestlé now owns Fruit Gums, Jelly Tots, Tutti Fruities and Fruit Pastilles, which were first launched around 120 years ago. The brands are now to be extended with the introduction of new flavours. Paul Kirkwood, senior press and PR officer at Nestlé UK, explains that the company is using the introduction of new flavours to innovate its products and provide what he terms an “alien invasion” of the category.

In the sugar category, brand loyalty is an important catalyst for sales, and Skittles Mints have similarly been launched this season to underpin the growth of the core Skittles fruits brands, sales of which are currently expanding by over 17% a year (Info Scan P9 2000). Mars also hopes to capitalise on the mint sugar category with this product and “the consumer response to new Skittles Mints has been tremendous,” insists Sam McElligott, Mars trade relations manager. Combining brand development with an understanding of consumer trends, Nestlé is extending its polo mint products with a variety of new flavours to address what Kirkwood explained is “a general trend towards a need for more mouth refreshment.”

Linking food and play is persuasive

The increased consumer interest in the category is also prompting the launch of new products, as well as building on existing brands. While sugar confectionery is reasonably easy to innovate compared to chocolate confectionery, many manufacturers have focused on creating special occasion confectionery that is likely to impact parents’ wallets rather than children’s pocket money. A range of Mr Lucky bags has blossomed, putting a twist on confectionery products by placing them in heavily themed packaging, which caters for both girls and boys, and a variety of childhood heroes, be it Manchester United football team or Barbie.

Indeed, research has shown that for children aged between five and ten years, the impulse decision is often linked clearly to well-known cartoon and children’s TV characters. As if sweets were not enough – manufacturers now wrap the confectionery in innovative packaging that doubles as a toy. Rather like the Kinder egg chocolate sweet, the sugar confectionery sector has dreamt up all manner of plastic casings that double as toys: these foods are fun. Linking the element of sweets and play is a persuasive link for children and adults, who are promised that the contentment and distraction of children could last a little longer.

So in terms of new flavours, brand diversity and even new products, the sugar market is extremely innovative. “Part of the reason for that is the fact that the main consumers are children,” Nestlé’s Kirkwood told

For the child in everyone

For parents themselves however, the sugar confectionery market is also starting to open up. It is doing this in two ways, firstly by appealing to those who are still happy to respond to advertising directed at their ‘inner child.’ This approach plays on the traditional association of sugar candy with children, but with packaging that is more suited to adult consumption habits. Skittles, for example, traditionally come in a small plastic bag. For this summer however, Mars has launched a mint version – a more typically adult flavour – in a pocket sized box. Mars says the key feature of the box is its ability to re-close, so the product does not have to be eaten in one go, adults allegedly being less keen to consume an entire packet of sweets in one session.

Through an extensive advertising campaign, Mars is now targeting the 20-something woman with Skittles and Starburst candies (which conveniently already come in a save-some-for-later packet). Adamant that the products’ ethos is one of a “light hearted personality, designed to appeal to the child in everyone,” Starburst are billed as “so fruity and juicy you just can’t take them seriously.” In Mars’ latest TV ad for Skittles, a woman of about 30 enjoys a packet of Skittles mints. In another campaign, a married mother is overcome by the invigorating experience of Starburst, and demonstrates the lust for life proffered by the chews by playing (arguably rather irritating) games with the car’s acceleration pedal, preventing her husband getting in. “The Starburst personality [has] universal appeal,” insists McElligott.

This is a marked departure from the days when sugar confectionery was the child’s treat alone, but interestingly, the market is also targeting those who look back on childhood days with nostalgia. According to Thorntons’ PR manager Julia Hall, the Traditional Sweet Shop range is currently “getting a face lift” ready for relaunch this autumn. The group hopes the maturity and quality associated with traditional sweets will appeal to the parents who hold the purse strings, as much as the sugar will appeal to the child.

Marketing support initiatives

To fuel the launch of its limited addition summertime chews, Mars has devoted considerable budget to point of sale support. As well as a strong £4.5m advertising campaign to encourage sales, those sales are supported by a selection a point of sale innovations, including dump bins and wobblers (a point-of-sale piece that hangs down from a shelf, usually from the price channel). Used to hold the continuing traditional sweet shop range of stock-price packs for the kids, all pocket money 10p products, this display material is designed to be easy for small retailers to use and attention-grabbing for children.

In a bid to boost this appeal even further, manufacturers are adopting new marketing techniques, aside from more traditional television and print advertising campaigns. Mars is getting involved with the grocery retailing side, and offering advice to small shopkeepers vis à vis the arrangement of their stores and confectionery displays. Alongside self-interested tips on how to drive consumers to its own brands, more useful advice from Mars is the recommendation to create a strongly branded range trail to act as a signpost to the sugar confectionery corner. To attract the adults meanwhile, grocers are encouraged to place large bags of sweets, which can be shared, near the main feature. Sugar confectionery should also be kept near the chocolate range to boost the available selection for impulse buy. The purchase of sugar confectionery is not always a “treat” for adults in the same way it is for children; it’s an impulse decision to freshen the palate, quench thirst, or alleviate boredom.

Looking to the future… sweets in the functional sector

The largest question for the sugar confectionery industry to address is “what now?” So problematic is this task that Spanish lolly pop maker Chupa Chups is even running a competition on its website asking kids for inventive ideas for the “next big thing” in the future of the lollipop (with the small print disclaimer: “Before you unleash your creativity remember: the production and reproduction rights will remain our property”).

The one blossoming area for the sugar confectionery market is product functionality. Reassuring parents that products are a good idea by changing their perception of sweets from an occasional treat to a dietary essential promotes excellent growth potential. Cadbury Trebor Bassett has cleverly released Vitamin Jelly Babies, thus combining the sugar hit and product form that appeals to kids with the reassurance for their parents that the treat has more function than merely keeping them quiet for a while. Wrigley has similarly launched itself towards the more profitable side of the supermarket shelves with promises that chewing gum can deliver more than just fresh breath. Airwaves menthol & eucalyptus vapour release chewing gum is pushing the product’s boundaries towards medicated functionality, as is Surpass gum in the US, which contains antacids. In 1999, the market for medicated confectionery was valued at £88.5m, 7.2% higher than in 1998 (OTC market statistics), and it can look forward to more growth.

Consolidating the current interest in the sugar confectionery sector with product variations, strong brands, powerful marketing and retailing initiatives, the big players are looking to build on the growth of previous years. Pushing back the boundaries on the definition of the sector is a revolutionary way forward, and given current consumer interest in functional products in other categories, there is every indication that this diversion will prove profitable.

Leatherhead Food Research Association recently published a report on healthy confectionery. For more information, click here.

Meanwhile, ICON has a report on the world outlook for sugar confectionery 2000-2005. For more details, click here.