A variety of Valentine candy hearts


A Sweet Marketing Strategy

February 9, 2022

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, store shelves are lined once again with Sweethearts brand conversation hearts, but keen shoppers will notice that the tiny pastel candies look different this year.

While consumers can still expect to see classic sayings like “Be Mine” and “Hug Me,” Sweethearts has added 16 platonic messages such as “Way 2 Go,” “Crush It,” and “High Five.” The sayings are part of Sweethearts’ 2022 “Words of Encouragement” theme, which aims for consumers to share the candy with a wider range of people, “from teachers, mentors, and coaches, to family, friends, teammates, and countless other difference-makers,” according to a press release issued by Sweethearts’ manufacturer Spangler Candy Co.

More than eight billion Sweethearts conversation hearts are produced annually, with 80 percent sold for Valentine’s Day. Despite their widespread seasonal presence, the candy’s future seemed uncertain in recent years. In 2018, the New England Confectionery Company (Necco), which made Sweethearts’ conversation hearts for more than 120 years, went out of business. Necco’s products, including its famous wafers and Sweethearts conversation hearts, were snatched up by the Spangler Candy Co., the manufacturer of Dum Dums Lollipops and Circus Peanuts. Tight turnaround and logistical issues prevented Spangler from producing the conversation hearts in time for Valentine’s Day 2019, and when they were finally relaunched in 2020, equipment issues forced the manufacturer to ship many without messages. When the sayings returned last year, the candy was marketed with a yearly theme: song lyrics.

Now, the 2022 Words of Encouragement theme may allow the Sweethearts brand to reach a new generation focused on inclusivity. In support of this year’s theme, Sweethearts has also encouraged consumers to “nominate anyone who they feel deserves words of encouragement or has given them a boost,” with 500 winners selected to receive a free box of candy with a special card from the sender.

The Box sat down with marketing and consumer behavior expert Deborah Y. Cohn, Ph.D., interim dean of the School of Management, to learn what’s behind this marketing strategy and how classic brands, like Sweethearts, can remain relevant to consumers.

Why may the Sweethearts brand have chosen to launch a “Words of Encouragement” theme for Valentine’s Day 2022?
The pandemic has certainly played a role in the decision to offer words of encouragement on candy. Greeting card companies have been offering words of encouragement greeting cards for many years. There are companies that put words of encouragement on pillows, frame them in pictures, and put them on mugs, rocks, clothing, and blankets. This is the first on candy, but it’s not a novel idea.

How do candy companies and marketers of seasonal products leverage consumer nostalgia to bolster product sales?
Nostalgia is a strong emotion that marketers tap into to make a connection with consumers. Although we may remember our childhood as carefree—even if it wasn’t—those feelings can help to reduce anxiety and loneliness, especially during difficult times.

Could classic brands, like Sweethearts, be at a disadvantage when they introduce changes like these new sayings?
There would be a risk if the new sayings replaced the old. Consumers might be disappointed if the old sayings weren’t included. Giving consumers a choice to purchase “Classic Sayings,” “Words of Encouragement,” or even, maybe, a “College Student Edition” could lead to more acceptance. Also, consumers who feel ownership of the new sayings might be more inclined to purchase the product. [One idea for Sweethearts] may be a contest to write some new sayings so that consumers are invested. They could also offer an opportunity to write your own sayings on the candy. I would love to give out candy to students that say, “New York Tech School of Management loves you” or “Good luck on midterms, from Dean Cohn.”

With product launches, why do marketers offer incentives such as giveaways?
Free gifts are a way to connect with consumers and get more consumers to try a product or brand. Consumers will feel more invested in the brand if they have a chance to engage with it in some meaningful way. It’s a great idea to hold these contests. Also, engagement can lead to a sense of psychological ownership of the brand. For example, a contest to write some new sayings might lead consumers to be invested and engaged. This could also lead to consumers posting their own sayings on social media.

What challenges do companies face in acquiring classic brands and how can marketing decisions ensure that they maintain consumer trust?
Brands that maintain their image for many years can hold on to loyal consumers. However, the brands often need to balance their classic look with outreach to younger consumers with an updated image. This is especially true if the image is not relevant to the current societal values. For example, Betty Crocker had to update their image so that they could appeal to the modern woman. “Words of Encouragement” could be [one] update in a long line of adapting to the times. Maybe next year there could be a post-pandemic set of sayings, such as “vaxxed together” or “boosted together”.

This interview has been edited and condensed.