The turn of the 19th century witnessed the growth and development of big chocolate manufacturers and with it, as exemplified particularly by Hershey’s, the development of a new and differentiated conceptualization of “Big Business,” rooted in benevolence and playfulness. This new development of business values, particularly of respecting and valuing employees before profits, set Hershey’s apart from other self-interested, profit-squeezing big businesses of the Gilded Age, such as Carnegie Steel and Standard Oil, companies that heavily exploited labor during that era. Hershey’s took pride in weaving its vision of a peaceful, fun, and playful firm through the two central avenues of product design and firm culture, each contributing to the larger theme of creating a local society of happiness centered around chocolate. The premise of creating a playful culture has continued at Hershey’s to this day.
Hershey’s innovative product design involved introducing an aura of playfulness and fun to the chocolate retailing process, as exemplified by development of the “Hershey Kiss” in 1907. Resulting from the noise made during the processing of the conical, flat-bottomed candy, the company coined the term “Kiss” to label this form of chocolate presentation. The “Kiss” was originally wrapped in silver material, individually and by hand, and upon its introduction to the market immediately captivated the imagination of consumers, making it a fast-selling income-generator that drove company sales to $2 million by 1910 (D’Antonio, 121).
The advertisement to the left shows a smiling young boy and girl, with the girl gently and delicately putting a Hershey Kiss into the boy’s mouth with the tagline reading, “A kiss for you.” This advertisement emphasizes not only the playful nature of the product itself as exemplified by the shape, silver wrap, eventually the tissue-paper plume but also the development of a social construction of the Hershey Kiss symbol. Giving a Hershey Kiss represented an experience of sharing goodness and kindness, emphasizing and facilitating the idea of children having fun, a symbolism in phase with Hershey’s goal of creating a harmonious “utopia.” Simultaneously this imagery subtly rejected the prevailing view of children as exploitative laborers, as promoted by other firms, like Standard Oil during the time. In this way, Hershey’s was progressive in its idealization that a benevolent, playful product can lay the foundation for a benevolent business and in turn a benevolent society. Continuing on these early foundations, the “Kiss,” shown in the image below, still represents the quintessential example of chocolate that first comes to children’s minds and a classic chocolate that can be shared and enjoyed in social contexts by all given its low-cost. As a result of the early product design centered on playfulness, Hershey’s today reports more than $500 million in annual revenue from the “Kiss” alone.
Both as a consequence of the playful product and Hershey’s utopian idea for the company and community-at-large, a benevolent and playful firm culture emerged at Hershey’s. M.S. Hershey plowed back the company’s earnings from its chocolate sales into developing a town and society of peacefulness and playfulness for both himself as well as his laborers.
The carousel shown in the image on the left is part of a broader project of building business culture centered on chocolate, vividly exemplifying the happy culture Hershey sought to build for his workers. M.S. Hershey cared deeply in making sure his employees enjoyed working for him and ensuring that the laborers’ working conditions were far from the conditions of the slaves that historically had produced the bulk of the world’s chocolate. D’Antonio writes, the “Hershey plan…called for a perfect American town in a bucolic natural setting, where healthy, right-living, and well-paid workers lived in safe, happy homes (D’Antonio, 115).” He even offered them electricity at home. There existed an element of awe towards how a business could have such lofty principles and still succeed given that profit-maximization and capitalist self-interest were not considered primary concerns. Comparing this ideology to other firms of the time, such as Carnegie Steel, Hershey’s carousel, as seen in the image above, its zoo, gardens, and the motive of placing fun and peacefulness of society ahead of money-making seemed more moral, but at the same time seemed to other capitalists as absurd. Even Forrest Mars believed that delving into the economics and profit-making aspects of business at Yale would help him succeed and make him shrewd (Brenner, 56).
The image to the left is a cover of Harper’s Weekly illustrating the 1892 Homestead Strike, when Carnegie hired private police to fight laborers. At that time, a social Darwinian belief that the rich and successful are the “fittest” generated friction between America’s elite and working-class, such that the elite subjected workers, including children to long-hour work in harsh conditions. One can clearly see the contrast between the relationship of firms and labor during that era and Hershey’s more inclusive and benevolent community-building pursuit at that time. Through his desire of keeping his workers happy he could transform the way the public viewed his big business. Today, difficulties may exist in maintaining this type of culture, given continuous consumer demand for chocolate and cost-cutting measures driven by competition. However, despite Hershey’s recent controversy over fair trade, Hershey’s has recommitted to its founding values.
One can see how Hershey’s idealistic vision gained support from the playfulness associated with product design and firm culture, allowing for the emergence of a benign type of big business very different from exploitive businesses of the day. To this day, Hershey’s has continued to emphasize the playfulness of its chocolate product, as seen by the creative building structure decorated with neon lights in New York’s Times Square in the image below. The positioning of this building in the middle of one of the world’s great financial centers underscores Hershey’s prevalence in the world economy and its presence in the Fortune 500. As the business continues to grow worldwide, one only hopes it does not lose touch of its history, the playfulness of the product, and the new kind firm culture it was founded on and thus ushered.
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