by Kate McMahon
On this, the eve of Valentine’s Day, I will admit to two guilty pleasures.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the iconic Sweethearts candies stamped with such saccharine sayings as BE MINE and LOVE U, and I’m hooked on TV’s soapy medical drama, “The Resident,” on Monday nights.
My crushes collided this week when “The Resident” opened with the hospital staff gathered around a bowl of candy conversation hearts (including WINK WINK and REAL LOVE). Lucky them. What the brilliant television surgeons did not know, however, is that Sweethearts - at least as America has known them for 116 years - are no more.
Romance, at this least for this year, is dead.
True aficionados have willingly paid a premium for Sweethearts selling on eBay and Amazon or through vendors that stockpiled the product last year when financial woes forced the product’s longtime manufacturer, New England Confectionery Company, or Necco, to shut down its factory.
Now there are other hearts out there – namely Brach’s Conversation Hearts, which come in two sizes, as well as imitators from Sweet Tarts and Sour Patch Kids – but they just aren’t the same as the original. The laser-printed Brach’s heart does not evoke the same nostalgia that I associate with the stamped Necco brand, and some of the sayings were simply illegible. (That said, I readily concede they both taste rather like flavored chalk.) The Breitharts candies from the conservative website Breitbart are in a category of their own – the messages include DEPLORABLE and FAKE NEWS.
The Necco/Sweethearts story is replete with business lessons since the company’s inception in Massachusetts in the 1860s until its bankruptcy auction last May. A Boston pharmacist created a machine to crank out medicinal lozenges, which led to Necco Wafers candies and eventually, Sweethearts in 1902. In recent years, Necco was producing some 13 million pounds of Sweethearts a year. The 80 messages per year evolved with the times, morphing from MARRY ME to CALL ME to FAX ME to TEXT ME to TWEET ME.
The family sold the business to an investment firm in 2007. Three years later, Necco changed the Sweethearts formula, faced a major consumer backlash, and reverted to close to the original product. The brand recovered, and expanded, but then faltered again.
Ironically, conversation hearts finally outpaced heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to be crowned the most popular Valentine’s Day candy in 2017, and Sweethearts commanded 80% of the category, according to Candystore.com.
The gaping void on the candy shelves this year presented a huge opportunity for Brach’s, which has ramped up production and added hipper sayings such as ADORBZ and H&K (Hugs and Kisses). But the Chicago-based firm needs to seize the moment from with savvy marketing and promotion, since Sweethearts are poised to return to the confectionery fray in 2020. And, it has to make its sayings legible.
Spangler, an Ohio-based family candy company that makes DumDums and candy canes, purchased Necco Wafers and Sweethearts at the bankruptcy auction and has indicated the product will be back next year.
Which begs the questions: Can Spangler produce a comparable candy and will Sweethearts fans be willing to take them back after a one-year absence?
To ease consumer anxiety, Spangler posted a “three-heart response” to consumers on its website last week. The hearts read:
Miss U 2. Wait 4 Me. Back Soon.
Will absence make the heart grow fonder? We’ll see.
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- KC's View: