Candy maker Necco is expanding the definition of "sweetheart" to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its heart-shaped confections stamped with messages of love and affection. A new campaign from Hill Holliday seeks to give the brand a modern makeover by plugging into social themes, including marriage equality. That's a novel approach for the confectionery category and a new recipe for this historically conservative marketer, which produces some 2.5 billion—yes, that's billion—of the candies each year.
"Our communities are becoming bigger and more connected," said Necco CEO Michael McGee. "For a brand, that means traditional, one-sided communication is not enough. You have to find ways to help consumers participate with your brand and have your conversation become interactive."
Toward that end, Necco is inviting folks to visit a contest website and share their sweet stories "of sharing, love, friendship and words from the heart" for a chance to win $5,000. On the homepage, they're greeted by the campaign's centerpiece—a video that tells the story of Jack and George. Now in their 80s, the Texans have been "sweethearts" for 55 years. They wed in 2015, shortly after the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. This year marks the first Valentine's Day they'll be able to celebrate as a legally married couple.
"We spent the day with them in their home and got to know them," said McGee. "We just kind of rolled the camera and let them tell their story. When you see how they interact with each other—their strength, their genuineness, their commitment to each other—they are just so endearing."
Another story on the site designed to challenge clichéd ideas of "sweethearts" is an entirely different breed. It tells the tale of Xena, an abandoned pooch that defied the odds to survive and worked a "miracle" by helping an isolated, uncommunicative autistic boy emerge from his shell.
For the most part, branding experts find this mix of sentimental stories and social issues to their taste. "Of course, it's a bit risky to incorporate gay content," said Michael Solomon, an industry consultant and professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "But as we saw with the Cheerios campaign [that challenged traditional definitions of 'family']—and Ikea and several others by now—the pros mostly outweigh the cons."
Since Sweethearts isn't just generic candy, but inexorably linked to Valentine's Day and notions of love, "it's smart of them to be more inclusive than just the traditional, corny boy-meets-girl scenario," Solomon said. "This is how you transform a cheap commodity into a cherished and personal item."
Robert Passikoff, best-selling author and president of Brand Keys, found the tale of George and Jack, "touching," but wondered if the brand isn't trying too hard to appear "with it" in a social context. "Nearly 65 percent of the population is in favor of or tolerant about same-sex marriage," he said. "So in this instance it seems more expedient—given the size and dollars of the LGBT market—than innovative."
That's a fair point, though perhaps it shouldn't be viewed as a negative. After all, in the past 10 years or so, audiences have become increasingly comfortable with brands tying into potentially controversial themes. This heightened level of acceptance, experts said, provides opportunities for a wider range of storytelling and connection.
"At this point, I'm not sure this subject is such a progressive theme," said Hill Holliday creative director Rick McHugh. "It's becoming somewhat mainstream, and that's a good thing."
Necco's McGee believes tapping into that trend will pay off for Sweethearts, which are sold almost exclusively as a Valentine's Day product in the eight-week run-up to the holiday. By telling sweet stories designed to melt consumers' hearts (and make them think just a little), he anticipates boosting sales 20 percent this year.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.