For candy companies, Halloween is like the Super Bowl. Or perhaps more accurately, the Olympic Games: a global event that competitors set their sights on years in advance, plotting an ambitious road map to greatness. If that all sounds a bit overblown, consider that the vast majority of America’s iconic candies have been in the game for nearly a century. Halloween, naturally, is a big part of what has kept them all at the top. So what’s involved in making each Halloween a confectionery success?
“Planning for each season begins two years in advance,” Tim Lebel, President of Sales & Chief Halloween Officer for Mars Wrigley, explains to The Takeout. Because of this long planning period, “Halloween is a year-round operation” for the manufacturer.
The development process begins by looking briefly backward. Which of last year’s releases saw the most success, and how can that be applied to future seasons? These findings are then paired with those of the R&D and insight teams, which study current consumer trends to determine what the candy landscape will look like by the time these new Halloween candies hit the market. Ideally, each season sees the parade of old classics in addition to some new, more of-the-moment limited-time candy releases.
“Trusted, nostalgic brands like M&M’s will always be tied to the [Halloween] season, but consumers still shape how the brands show up on shelves,” says Lebel. For example, the general public’s enthusiasm for Zombie Skittles—a candy that indulged our latent craving for rotting human flesh back in 2019—led to this year’s release of Skittles Shriekers, which contain a random amount of super sour Skittles hidden inside each bag. (Anyone else curious to see what other random “surprises” can be shuffled in and among our Skittles? Hopefully Mars Wrigley never pulls the cruelest Halloween prank of all: mixing M&M’s and Skittles into one pack.)
It’s not always evident which new candies will be a hit, but when deciding what hits the market, adding a bit of unexpected crunch to a classic is never a bad move.
“Consumers love their favorites but still seek variety in flavor and texture,” Lebel explains. Case in point: both M&M’s Chocolate Popcorn and Cookies & Scream flavors have returned after a successful run last year, and both products add crunchiness where you wouldn’t expect it (the outer shell on the Cookies & Scream and the inside of the Chocolate Popcorn).
One year out from Halloween begins what Lebel describes as “full preparation mode.” The supply team ensures that the factories are being readied for the fall seasonal rollouts, and the marketing team is working on how to position new products. Halloween production heats up in the summer so that candies have plenty of time to reach retailers—hence all the orange-and-black displays you see creeping into your local stores around August.
Interestingly, shifting consumer trends amid the pandemic didn’t hurt Mars Wrigley’s business as you might expect. In fact, chocolate sales grew 4.2% and non-chocolate candy sales grew 2.9% in 2020, according to the National Confectioners Association’s 2021 State of Treating Report. But uncertain times did have an impact on where people bought those candies, and the unit sizes they purchased. Lebel notes that consumers are buying more seasonal candies at convenience stores and opting for best-sellers in larger share sizes and stand-up packs so they didn’t have to return to the store quite so frequently.
If you’re wondering what the next few Halloweens look like for the candy world, you’ve never had more power to weigh in on the matter yourself. Lebel says that social media has created more of a direct conversation with consumers than ever before.
“We love interacting with our fans to get direction on candy flavors and textures they want to see,” he says. “We take that feedback very seriously as we plan for Halloween.”
So, what sorts of candies do you want to see on store shelves in 2023? Better start sending along brainstorms now, because the clock is already ticking.