John Downs, president and CEO of the National Confectioners Association (NCA) opened its annual ‘State of the Industry’ conference in Boca Raton, Florida by rocking a leather jacket and startling attendees with a convincing impersonation of Freddie Mercury, the late singer from Queen.
To the soundtrack of We Will Rock you, Downs was in an upbeat mood as he outlined his vision to accelerate change and reassure NCA members that the confectionery industry in the United States is “alive and well”.
All well and good, but Downs also knows there are significant challenges ahead for the confectionery industry in the US, not least trying to satisfy the ‘Generation Xers’, the Millennials and Gen Z consumers who are disrupting normal behavior by being very choosy with their vast spending power.
The millennials are America’s largest generation, Downs told the conference, and the under-30s make up 46% of candy sales and contribute to 87% of industry growth.
“They [the Gen Xers] are not just the future, they are here now, in the workplace and in the market place … we need to pay attention to those two generations.”
Downs said consumer attitude and spending has changed over last decade. A recent Mintel study found 67% of respondents said they wished food companies were more transparent about their products, and where they get their ingredients.
“The NCA’s challenge is to be radically open-minded, transparent, positive and focussed not only in manufacturing but also when it comes to the social, economic and environmental impact in communities in which we operate, from packaging, waste, water usage, carbon footprint, shoppers are acknowledging good behavior with their wallets,” he said.
Candy is a quintessential American success story, he reaffirmed. In 2018 sales were up 1.2% to $35.bn and by 2022 candy sales are expected to rise to achieve $38.4bn. The industry employs over 600,000 people.
Downs also said candy is “America’s original treat, it’s consumer-centric, mixes science and art in its creation and consumers love it.”
But to maintain its place in the nation’s hearts, Downs said the industry must keep on changing, adding to its story, it needs to gain the trust and acceptance of young people and he called for more transparency with suppliers and retailers.
“Transparency is the currency of trust,” he said. "The NCA has created a powerful story, a powerful narrative that has helped change public perception of candy and candy can play a unique role in a happy, balanced lifestyle.”
Downs said that in the past four years, traditional media coverage has doubled, and the coverage has been overwhelmingly positive. On social media only 1-2% of comments was negative on candy.
What has changed in those four years? It was down to NCA taking control of the story and “it’s paid off for stakeholders, consumers, and NCA’s retail customers,” he said. “Consumers want our products, want help managing their sugar intake and want variety and options.”
Shifting trends in the demographic have given non-chocolate candy and premium chocolate a significant boost, he told the conference. To highlight the change in perception, Downs highlighted a recent NYT magazine cover with the headline: ‘Candy Makes The World Go Round’.
Moving forward Downs promised that the NCA will be even better partners in the future, after all, he told the conference: “A world without candy is no world at all”.
Happily, for the NCA, 97%, of consumers agree with the sentiment.