MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
We've heard plenty of stories these days about food companies trying to make their products just a little healthier, less sugar, fewer trans fats. But now, the story of a company that's had a change of heart in the other direction.
In a do-the-right-thing gesture, two years ago, the New England Candy Company known for its Necco Wafers decided to use beets and cabbage to color and flavor the circular chalky candy. It wanted to be all natural.
Well, sales sunk and complaints soared, so Necco is going back to doing what it does best: making candy with artificial dyes and good old fashioned sugar. For more on the switch and the switch back, we're joined by Jeff Green. He's the vice president for innovation at Necco.
Welcome to the program.
JEFF GREEN: Thank you.
NORRIS: Why did you originally decide to go all natural?
GREEN: When we started discussing it, you know, looking at sales, sales were kind of flat and we were looking to kind of put a little pizzazz behind our trademark product. Looking at the trade journals, natural food sales were up, organic food sales were up. Everybody was doing great, so it seemed like a great idea at the time.
NORRIS: There are eight different Necco Wafers in that little tube that you get and they vary in color. Could you just pick one of the four that you changed and walk us through what you did to try to make that change and how close to the mark you got?
GREEN: OK. I'll take licorice. The colors were so expensive and so unstable and to try to even approximate that charcoal gray color would have probably raised the price to, like, $5 a roll.
NORRIS: Oh, my goodness.
GREEN: And people didn't want to even pay a dollar a roll, or at least 35 percent of our consumer base didn't. So, you know, we got a light gray.
NORRIS: What was the response when you rolled out the new Neccos?
GREEN: There was a little bit of, like, wow, that's great. And then there was a lot of, what did you do to my Necco Wafers?
NORRIS: And did that come in the form of letters, emails?
NORRIS: Calls to the company?
GREEN: Exactly. You know, our normal mail volume probably went up 20-fold.
NORRIS: How much did sales drop?
GREEN: I think, roughly, about 35 percent.
NORRIS: Oh, big drop.
GREEN: Big drop.
NORRIS: You know, listening to you, it sounds like almost a New Coke experience.
GREEN: I've heard it referred to that way. You know, when you're tampering with the family jewels for 150 years, we expected some fallout, but I don't think we expected it to be quite what it was.
NORRIS: Is there a lesson here for candy manufacturers overall, that when people pick up a piece of candy, that's it's more than the flavor, that there's some sort of like childhood memory that's part of that and that you're entering into dangerous territory if you start to play with that?
GREEN: Absolutely. There's a lot of great stories about Necco Wafers and people growing up and using them for communion practice and all kinds of things that we hear anecdotally and, you know, those come back and they kind of haunted us through this period because people were reminding us of what they grew up with.
NORRIS: And World War II memories.
NORRIS: You know, Necco Wafers work great if you're playing cards, also.
GREEN: Yes, they do. And I understand they work in the Chicago toll booths, too.
NORRIS: Oh, get out of here. Is that true?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREEN: I don't have any confirmation.
NORRIS: All right. Chicago listeners, you (unintelligible). Jeff Green, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you.
GREEN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you, as well.
NORRIS: Jeff Green is the nice president for innovation at Necco.
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