New recipe, look boost Butterfinger sales

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

After years of declining sales, it was time to lay a finger on Butterfinger.

The iconic candy bar, with its bright orange filling and familiar “nobody lay a finger on my Butterfinger” ad campaign, has experienced a sales turnaround since relaunching early this year with a new recipe and a new look, according to executives at Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based Ferrara Candy.

It is among several legacy brands getting a reboot since Ferrara’s parent company, Italy’s Ferrero Group, purchased Nestle’s U.S. confectionary business last year, helping reinforce Chicago’s reputation as the nation’s candy-making capital.

Ferrara Candy now controls the brand, and it has revamped the bar, with some recipe changes, double-layer packaging to preserve freshness and a brighter design.

The Nestle purchase more than doubled the portfolio of Chicago-born Ferrara, best known for its Black Forest gummy bears and Trolli and Brach hard candies, by giving it control of an additional 20 big-name brands including Butterfinger, Crunch, Baby Ruth, Raisinets, Nerds and SweeTarts.

Ferrara, which took over the Chicago-area Nestle factories where many of those candies are made, has been introducing new formulas and packaging and boosting distribution. Early results suggest the efforts have been successful, and the company plans to apply the same approach to brands Ferrero Group recently acquired from Kellogg, including cookie mainstays Keebler and Famous Amos.

“When we brought the brands into our portfolio we knew we had gems that had not been invested in to perform at potential,” Kristen Mandel, senior director of marketing at privately held Ferrara Candy, said of the confections formerly owned by Nestle.

Crunch was the first to get its new owners’ attention. The company didn’t touch the product but doubled its investment to launch an “America Loves Crunch” ad campaign, the chocolate brand’s first on-air marketing campaign in a decade.

Crunch’s sales, which had been flat, have grown 4% since the acquisition, Ferrara said.

Getting Butterfinger’s groove back was a bigger challenge. Its quality had deteriorated over the years and sales had seen double-digit declines, so Ferrara revamped the recipe and tripled its marketing investment, Mandel said.

For the new “better Butterfinger,” made at a factory in Franklin Park, Ferrara removed hydrogenated oil and the controversial preservative TBHQ, or tertiary butylhydroquinone; created a richer “chocolatey” coating through its refinement process and by adding more cocoa and milk; and introduced jumbo peanuts, ground in-house, to layer into the taffy in the orange center, she said. The new bar also comes in double-layer packaging to preserve freshness with a brighter, more contemporary design that calls for attention like a “bright yellow beacon of light,” Mandel said.

The changes riled some Butterfinger fans, who took to Twitter with threats to boycott the brand and demanding a return to the original recipe. “Happy Father’s Day to everyone except the man or woman that decided to change the @butterfinger recipe,” read one Tweet last month. “The new Butterfinger is so gross,” read another, paired with a vomiting emoji.

But in a recent four-week period, Butterfinger sales were up 17.7% compared with a year before, Ferrara said.

“Any time you touch a product with loyal fans, you risk this type of reaction,” Ferrara Candy spokeswoman Sarah Kittel said.

Baby Ruth’s makeover will hit shelves later this year, in time for its 100th birthday next year. Its new formula boasts dry-roasted peanuts instead of oil-roasted, plus the bar will have new double-layer metallic packaging and its first advertising campaign in a decade, Mandel said.

The chocolate brands needed love after languishing for years under Nestle as the Swiss company focused more on health foods, said Marcia Mogelonsky, director of food and drink insight at market research firm Mintel.

“The more that Nestle moved into a better-for-you and healthy universe, the less they figured out what to do with those (candy) brands, so they basically let them sit,” she said. Nestle’s diverse portfolio includes Gerber baby food, Perrier and Lean Cuisine.

Nostalgia plays a significant role in people’s candy purchases — most people say their favorite candy is the one they grew up eating — so there is great opportunity in sprucing up the classics, most of which have been around since the 1920s, Mogelonsky said.

The buying spree has made Ferrero Group, with close to $12.4 billion in global revenue last year, the second-largest candy company in the world. Chicago-based Mars Wrigley Confectionary is still by far the leader with $18 billion in global sales.