Taking a Bite out of the Competition: Hershey, Mars, and Product Innovation in the Late 20th Century

When craving just a taste of chocolate, most American consumers will probably reach for a “bite-sized” milk chocolate Hershey’s Kiss, or perhaps a handful of candy-coated M&M’s, produced by the Mars company. Long-gone are the days of singular options on a candy shelf; in fact, chocolate products take up entire aisles in most grocery and convenience stores. Caramel, nougat, peanut butter, hard candy, and more ingredients have infiltrated the traditional chocolate bar, and each option is available in a variety of sizes. In an effort to be king of the market, chocolate and candy companies have diversified consumer options. The creative and countless variations seen in a candy aisle today primarily exist because of an incredibly aggressive competitive corporate environment between the Mars and Hershey companies in the second half of the 20th century, which in turn massively diversified the modern chocolate market.

Hershey dominated the American chocolate industry early-on, even selling its chocolate to Mars to coat candy bars. Through marketing and product innovation, though, Mars found a leg up. What allowed Mars to become an economic threat to Hershey was the Milky Way Bar: a candy bar not entirely made up of solid chocolate, but rather cheaper ingredients. Mars could sell a bigger candy bar for the same price as Hershey’s classic milk chocolate bar, leaving Hershey behind the times (Brenner 54). Decades later, Hershey and Mars produce similar yet distinct products in an attempt to market themselves as the best. A primary example of this are two competing “bite-sized” products, the Hershey’s Kiss and M&M, respectively.

Early M&M’s advertising informs its viewer of the innovation of the product, carrying an iconic slogan of “melts in your mouth, not your hand.” Mars blatantly wants buyers to notice the difference between the M&M and other chocolate treats. Coming in two varieties, regular and peanut, in 1984 “the candies shared $500 million in sales just about equally,” (Fortune). In fact, the treats were in such high demand that Mars failed to produce enough M&M’s to meet demand for the 1983 Christmas season. In comparison, Hershey’s approach to marketing their Kiss repetitively emphasizes “big taste” in a little package. Both products are small, sweet, and  milk chocolate-based, yet each technique to market them is distinctive. Small chocolate products were innovative in the sense that they were a small indulgence, or also perhaps that they were easier to carry and enjoy. Profitable and well-loved by consumers, this new invention previously-unknown within the chocolate world is a major example of market change. Many more smaller sized chocolate options are available to, and beloved by, consumers today.

Competition between candy companies is so secretive and dramatic it seems taken from the pages of a book. In fact, Roald Dahl parodies the spies and trade secrets of candy companies in his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Brenner 61). The primary contenders of the late 20th century for control of the American candy market were Hershey and Mars, who in 1985 made “all ten of the best-selling candies in the U.S. (five for Hershey, five for Mars), and they share[d] 70% of the candy bar market.” In fact, 20% of Hershey’s revenue in 1985 came entirely from the sale of new products (Fortune). Now, Mars was caught behind the wave of chocolate innovation. When Hershey released a “Big Blocks” bar to appeal to adult men, Mars soon followed with a King-Sized Snickers (Fortune). As Hershey produced higher-priced premium bars with smoother chocolate and whole nuts, “industry analysts expected [the same] from Mars,” (Fortune). Thirty years later, it is hard to guess just how many varieties of chocolate bars exist. Consumers today develop a greater depth of preference and taste with so many options available to them, as apposed to consumers in the past who may never have considered these flavor combinations in a candy bar.  

The modern innovation of marketing and candy production in retrospect seems primarily a result of economic competition. Without Hershey’s and Mars’ corporate feuds, one might question how far consumer bases may have drifted from the well-loved simple milk chocolate bar. Consumers have options now, and some might prefer chocolate with nuts or nougat or even bite-sized chocolate to a plain chocolate bar. The aggressive innovation race to the top of the corporate ladder has fundamentally changed the chocolate market – and even consumer taste – by so expansively diversifying chocolate candy.

Works Cited

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Lawrence, Steve. “Bar Wars: Hershey Bites Mars.” Fortune 8 July 1985: 154. Print.

Videos:

M&M’s Commercials. “M&M’s-Which Hand (1950’s, USA)”. Youtube. 17 February 2009. Web.

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television. “Hershey’s Kisses with Jason Alexander (Commercial, 1981)”. Youtube. 4 February 2008. Web.

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