John Downs delivers a surprise punch at the NCA’s annual State of the Industry Conference

By Anthony Myers

- Last updated on GMT

'Always A Treat': NCA boss John Downs looks to the future at the NCA's State of the Industry conference in Boca Raton. Pic: NCA
'Always A Treat': NCA boss John Downs looks to the future at the NCA's State of the Industry conference in Boca Raton. Pic: NCA

Related tags Nca Candy Confectionary

President and CEO plays the straight man this time as he sets out the organization’s agenda for the next five years and promises to act on cocoa sustainability, look at the issues around the CBD trend and maintain the confectionery industry’s image as a ‘cultural connector’.

The scene was all set for National Confectioners Association president and CEO John Downs to deliver his opening State of the Industry Conference (SOTIC) speech to members in Boca Raton, then came the glitch. He walked onto the stage half ready in fancy dress costume, tearing a strip off the production director for being sloppy.

It was all part of the show and members who attended last year will remember Downs coming on as Queen’s Freddie Mercury and rocking Boca with his opening speech, something he admitted this year "was a moment of stark terror​".

How do you top that performance? With difficulty, Downs admitted, so it was a more sober-suited president and CEO who took to the stage to The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again​ for SOTIC 2020, but there were still a few surprises up his sleeve.

Cocoa sustainability

The first was that he mentioned cocoa sustainability, which has never previously been talked about at NCA gatherings, preferring to leave the thorny subject to other Washington-based organizations like the World Cocoa Foundation to tackle.

Cocoa sustainability in origin country supply chains. We all want farmers to earn a sustainable income, we wand their children to attend school and have a great future​,” he told the 650 attendees gathered in Boca. He also called for an urgent new approach. “I believe we underestimated the complexities of the problem and we overestimated our ability to solve them. We must close the circle with other stakeholders. We either all win or all lose​.”

He said the NCA is ready and willing to join the conversation and help solve the problem. “Our consumers expect it – and it’s the right thing to do​.”

With a representative from Fairtrade America attending the conference for the first time, his comments won’t go unnoticed and the NCA will be welcomed at the sustainability table, bringing with it its considerable financial and political clout as a Washington player.

Cocoa is the most valuable ingredient to the industry and there is a role for NCA to play

Downs told ConfectioneryNews that NCA conducted a customized piece of research for the Fine Chocolate Association in 2019 and he gave a speech at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco on some of the issues from the feedback.

Millennials, he said, were very concerned about where their chocolate comes from and how it’s made was important to them. “The issue is becoming more relevant in the United States, cocoa is the most valuable ingredient to the industry and there is a role for NCA to play in thought leadership, that’s why I felt compelled to speak on sustainability. The intentions of the chocolate industry on this issue are very good, they just haven’t made enough progress against the problem because of the size and scale and the complexity of the supply chain​,” he said.

There’s no business like showbusiness, and there’s no other industry like the confectionery industry Downs told NCA members, with its unique categories, business models and people – and its emotional connection to consumers.

Candy, a cultural connector

Hershey and Mars are in the top 10 brands that consumers trust, Downs said. Candy is a cultural connector in American society, like movies, music and sport.

It’s a new decade, new spirit, and a celebration, Downs announced. 2019 was a solid year, sales up 2.4% with seasonal confectionery hitting over 6% growth. Demographic destiny is coming to the candy industry and it can expect sales of $40bn by 2024.

Confectionery has 99% penetration into American households, second to none, beating even toilet paper, bizarrely, when it comes to the grocery shop, Downs said.

During the recent Trump impeachment process, the senate ‘candy desk’ made national headlines, even astronauts on the national space station requested more supplies of chocolate.

As well as entertainment value, Downs brings a maniacal obsession to discipline and focus on issues that affect NCA members, and going forward innovation, communication and transparency will be key, he said.

Always A Treat

The NCA will continue to ride the ‘Always A Treat’ narrative of mindful indulgence when it comes to candy consumption across generations. Downs chose SOTIC to launch the NCA’s new research report Sweet Insights: State of Treating 2020​, which delves deep into consumer habits and spend.

Candy as a healthy treat is a new positive perception for the industry, that was unheard of five years ago, Downs told delegates, and it is continuing to move the needle in a positive direction.

Cracking the code on e-commerce is also another big challenge, said Downs, along with seasonal candy and dealing with the downturn during the summer, which is why he chose the conference to announce a wider roll-out of National Candy Month in June, starting from 2021, which could be worth up to $500m for the industry, if it takes off.

The other surprise was that Downs, the showman, didn’t disappoint the crowd and he came back on stage fleetingly as Elton John in his Dodgers baseball outfit from the 70s, playing it for laughs and emphasising the fun value of SOTIC as well as the serious business side. He also made an appearance in a Tik-Tok video to show the NCA are following trends and are exploring new formats for engaging with consumers.

CBD trend

Downs also told ConfectioneryNews he is looking at the NCA’s role in engaging with disruptors in the industry such as the CBD trend in candy and said the organization can act as a convener and educator, but it’s also important for the industry’s thought leader to make sure that it controls the conversation to safeguard the image and reputation of traditional confectionery because “this is not candy, this is a different occasion-based product or moment – so that’s the plan​”.

And youth has a role to play in the NCA. Its Young People’s Network, along with the Women’s Leadership Group are key components at SOTIC.

With NASA astronauts professing a love for chocolate, it’s worth remembering that during the Apollo 13 crisis, when it almost lost the craft in deep space, it empowered its most junior team members, giving them total ownership of its specialist stations and interrogated their recommendations in the plan and did not try to second-guess them, to help solve the problem.

It is a lesson that industry and society in general would do well to heed - and why the NCA has involved its young leaders to contribute to its Thrive 25 strategy - especially when ‘demographic destiny’ is placing the future in the hands of the young consumer.

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