Twenty seven years ago, John Dunn, brand manager for Hershey's chocolate, was in San Francisco at Colossal Pictures to oversee some new TV spots. The shoot went faster than Dunn had expected, leaving him with some extra studio time. Dunn could have boarded a flight back to Pennsylvania, but instead he asked Ogilvy & Mather to use the bonus time to throw together a holiday spot. The result was a Christmas tree shaped from a formation of 11 Hershey's Kisses, which "rung" like bells to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," courtesy of stop-motion photography.
Today, that hasty, unauthorized shoot has become the longest-running commercial in Hershey's history. Which is only fitting, since Kisses are arguably the longest-running hit in the world of chocolate. (Kisses are, for the record, the No. 1 selling holiday confection brand in America.)
It's not just Kisses' catchy name (the candy category is full of those, after all), or the shape (we'll get to that in a second); it's that Kisses—which Hershey's wraps in red, green and silver foil at this time of year—has woven itself into the cultural fabric of the holidays. Eloy Trevino, partner in brand consultancy Prophet, explains it this way: It might be 98 degrees outside, but if you spot those colored-foil Hershey's Kisses, you know it's Christmas.
"Hershey's has made Kisses—the shape of Kisses—the hero of the holidays," Trevino said. "The number of households with candy dishes filled with Kisses at this time of year has got to be gigantic."
That's not only a safe bet now, it's been one for 109 years. It was company founder Milton Hershey who added Kisses to his chocolate lineup in 1907. Hershey's instincts had not always been good. Two of his candy businesses failed before he got turned on by milk chocolate at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But Kisses were an immediate hit. There was something about their simplicity (the literal glob of chocolate spat out by an extruding machine), their name (believed by some to come from the noise said machine made), and the branded wrapper—called a "plume"—that acted like a rip cord to free the treat from its foil wrapper. By 1924, Hershey's had trademarked all of these features, because competitors were ripping all of them off.
It would take longer, though, for Kisses to become part of Christmas. Hershey's introduced holiday packaging in the 1920s, but not until 1962 did the company strike on the idea of red, green and silver foil. Nobody's sure who came up with it, but it's clear that headquarters is keeping it.
"The Kisses brand is iconic," said Hershey's senior brand manager Yussef Kuri. "Our red, green and silver Kisses are the company's number one holiday item and have held that position for many years."
Thanks, in part, to that commercial shot in San Francisco 27 Christmases ago.
This story first appeared in the December 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.