Mars Wrigley's chief Halloween officer answers our burning candy marketing questions
In an emailed conversation, Victor Mehren — COO by day — explains the unique challenges and opportunities for the company behind iconic treats like M&M's, Snickers and Skittles.
Halloween is always big business for candy marketers, but this year, the National Retail Federation forecasts that consumer spending around the holiday could reach $9 billion — the second-highest figure recorded in the 14 years that the trade group has run its annual survey. That spells huge opportunity for marketers like Mars Wrigley Confectionery, the name behind iconic treats like M&M's, Snickers and Skittles.
In fact, Halloween is so important that Mars Wrigley created a position specifically for the season: chief Halloween officer. Currently filling the festive role is Victor Mehren, who acts as chief operating officer by day. In an emailed correspondence, Mehren answered Marketing Dive's most burning questions about what, specifically, a chief Halloween officer does, and how Mars Wrigley is looking to overcome marketing challenges in a crowded category this year.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MARKETING DIVE: Chief Halloween officer is a fun title, but I imagine there's some serious business reasoning behind it?
VICTOR MEHREN: You're right that Halloween is serious business for Mars Wrigley Confectionery — it's our industry's Super Bowl. Halloween is the second-biggest holiday in the U.S. and is a top opportunity for us. Did you know that Halloween is also the fastest-growing season outside of North America? Yes, people are celebrating this trick-or-treat holiday around the world, from Europe to Asia.
At Mars Wrigley Confectionery, we're all about driving meaningful connections with consumers every day, but especially around the Halloween season. That's why we introduced a chief Halloween officer to oversee our seasonal strategies and Halloween offerings.
What qualifications did you need to take on the role?
MEHREN: My expertise in marketing and sales gives me direct insight into our product development and innovation processes, and more importantly, what our retail customers and our consumers want, at Halloween and year-round.
In 2017, more than 178 million Americans participated in Halloween festivities, and consumers spent $9.1 billion on the holiday, including costumes, candy and décor. According to Nielsen, Mars Wrigley Variety Packs are the No. 1 Halloween brand, and overall, Mars has six of the top 10 items sold during the holiday. As chief Halloween officer, my job is to ensure that our brands and business were ready for this banner holiday.
What are some of the ways your job changes once you don the seasonal cap?
MEHREN: My seasonal caps are always changing, but my favorite may be the chief Halloween officer role. We begin planning each spring, when we examine consumer trends and market predictions that will inform the upcoming Halloween season. We typically think at least eight to 12 months into the future and rely on trend forecasters to help us see around corners and predict what's next.
We start Halloween-related shipping and distribution processes in the summer months to ensure our treats arrive on shelves in time for the holiday. We ramp up production and are in full gear preparing for Halloween from August through Oct. 31st.
And believe it or not, we've already started planning for next year!
Keeping in the spirit of the season, what's the scariest thing about Halloween marketing for an iconic candy company in 2018?
MEHREN: Halloween is an amazing time to work for a candy company. We're at the center of a culturally relevant, nostalgic and fun holiday. But at the same time, consumers are paying more attention to what they eat, and these changing preferences are shaping how we operate as a confectionery company and how we market and talk about our products.
However, data show treats' continued importance to consumers, and annual sales of confections have grown over the past several years. In 2017, Mars Wrigley Confectionery grew nearly three times faster than the category overall, driven by innovations from M&M's, Dove, Extra Gum, Skittles and Starburst.
Overall, it's an exciting time in our industry — this contrast presents new opportunities, as well as challenges, for us to tackle. If we don't carefully track seismic shifts in consumer tastes and media consumption, not to mention stay abreast of cultural trends, then we're doing our job wrong. We may be a 100-year-old company, but we must adapt by following consumer insights to stay relevant and top of mind.
Stemming from that, what are some of the new ways Mars Wrigley's brands are looking to drum up engagement with consumers this year?
MEHREN: We're always dreaming up new treats inspired by changing consumer tastes. For example, knowing that pumpkin spice has become an autumnal staple, last year we released M&M's White Pumpkin Pie. We've also put a Halloween spin on iconic treats with pumpkin-shaped Snickers and ghost-shaped Twix.
This year, we believe consumers will be excited by our new variety packs of fun-size treats, as well as fun glow-in-the-dark packages. We also know that the Halloween season is more than just one day and more than just trick-or-treating — to that end, we introduced "Haunted House" and "Party Bowl" items, which are filled with candy and can be used as decorations or at parties.
M&M's launched its first commercial in 11 years at the start of the month. What motivated the brand to return to a channel like TV?
MEHREN: M&M's are synonymous with Halloween, and for years we've heard from our fans how much they enjoy our Halloween commercials. This year, we wanted to create a new spot to continue the excitement around the holiday and surprise our fans in a colorful new way.
We decided that by bringing humor to one of the scariest nights of the year and share a comedic with an M&M's take on the classic ghost story, we'd capture our audiences while reintroducing M&M's to TV. We hope our fans enjoy this new commercial as much as they enjoy M&M's on Halloween.
With the big day fast approaching, what's keeping you most occupied in the final stretch?
MEHREN: In this final week, we are all-hands-on-deck to bring Halloween to everyone. Our teams are working nonstop to keep production up, ensuring that retailers are equipped for last-minute shoppers, and are sharing the excitement with consumers and associates across social.
We're also taking the time to celebrate the holiday with our 6,000 associates nationwide and give back to our communities. We host Halloween-themed events at all 14 of our sites across the U.S., inviting family and friends to be a part of "Boo Bash," our annual in-office trick-or-treating extravaganza. In Newark, we hosted three Halloween events, handing out more than 8,000 free costumes and candy to thousands of community members.
Halloween has always been a special time for me, personally. Some of my favorite memories with my three daughters were watching their excitement of dressing up, trick-or-treating and getting to celebrate one of their favorite holidays together. I love being part of that magic for families around the country, knowing that our brands are helping to create memories and bring smiles to our consumers' faces. At the end of it all, we're just excited for our treats to play an important part of the season for millions of Americans.
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