ImageWe're just going to come out and admit it: We love candy. Yes, we've fallen under the sway of candy branding and we can't get up. We couldn't think of a better guest columnist to savor the sweet mystery of this condition than blogger Joanna Miller, who super-serves the sweet-toothed with her regular ruminations at SugarSavvy.net. We asked her to weigh in on the consumer's relationship to the brightly hued offerings of the candy aisle, and we think her thoughts will give you a lot to chew on.

Unless you had the misfortune of being raised by parents who tried to masquerade carob clusters as chocolate and who convinced you that apple slices were "dessert," I'm guessing you ate quite a bit of candy as a kid.

For most of us, candy was our first expression of independence. It was most likely the first food we ate that was not selected by our parents and was purchased with our own money. It thus represents one of our earliest, most innocent encounters with consumer branding.

I remember weekly visits to Payless Drug Store and Dari Mart, overwhelmed yet exhilarated by the offerings that lay before me. If prudent with my funds, I could easily walk away with a small box each of Lemonheads and Hot Tamales, a Marathon Bar and a Jolly Rancher Fire Stick, as well as several Tootsie Rolls, bite-sized Chick-O-Sticks and a couple-few rolls of Smarties. A 75-cent allowance went far in 1979, when full-sized candy bars were a quarter and "penny candy" actually cost a penny.

ImageAs an adult, I've developed taste in candy more sophisticated than the Lik-M-Aid leanings of my youth. I recently noticed that my hankerings fall under distinctly separate categories: chocolate and candy. A Reese's Peanut Butter Cup is candy, as are Mounds Bars, Sweet Tarts and candy corn. A bar of Green & Black's Organic Dark Chocolate (72 percent cacao) is chocolate.

Always a lover of the latter, there once was a time that I considered a Hershey's Special Dark to be something really, well, special. Now when I want chocolate, I'm very selective about what I put in my mouth. I am a careful budgeter of my "discretionary calories," and I want the chocolate I eat to really count. When I indulge in chocolate (a near-daily occurrence), it's going to be deep, dark and premium chocolate, not a Mr. Goodbar. I'm not talking about a Nestlé's "Dark" Chocolate Crunch or even a Dove Dark Chocolate Bar but rather, a square (or six) of something truly exceptional. These brands include Dagoba, Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Chuao, Endangered Species and the aforementioned Green & Black's.

This is not to say that I don't have an equal desire for the Reese's. In fact, I continue to be drawn to the stuff I loved when I was nine years old. I still relish Smarties and Chick-O-Sticks, and you won't see me turn my nose up at a Lemonhead or Hot Tamale. I would still love Marathon Bars, too, if they hadn't been banished to the confectionary graveyard, like so many dearly departed treats. [Editor's Note: We, too, mourn the Marathon Bar.]

ImageAs I review the list of my all-time favorites, I notice that there's a common thread regarding branding. All of these candies have changed very little, if at all, in their look or packaging. A Reese's is still dressed in its familiar orange, brown and yellow paper, albeit of a glossier finish. Smarties look no different than they did 25 years ago. Ditto the Lemonheads and Hot Tamales. Looking at the 1949 print advertisement for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups that appears above, it's striking to see how very little the logo and font have been altered in nearly 60 years.

This consistency in branding is especially effective because these are products we've enjoyed since we were children. There is comfort in finding our old friends just as they were when we first met them. I'm reminded of the time I went to spy on the house where I was raised; seeing it with new paint and landscaping, it just didn't exert the same emotional power it once had. We are nostalgic people. Familiarity equals comfort, particularly where it concerns comfort food, i.e. candy. And comfort is a potent brand equity, one that has rotted countless teeth — and earned billions — over the decades.

As independent candy manufacturers have been gobbled up by the three big U.S. corporations (Hershey's, Nestlé and Mars), one would expect that a marked change in packaging and branding would follow. Not so.

Hershey's, for example, purchased
Hershey's recognized the value of the Reese's packaging's nostalgic magnetism.
Peter Paul (makers of Mounds and Almond Joy) in 1988. The company chose to keep the Peter Paul logo on the wrapper, a wise decision considering that our association of Peter Paul with Mounds and Almond Joy runs deep. You need never have eaten one to know that "Peter Paul Almond Joy's got nuts; Peter Paul Mounds don't" (though you would have to be old enough to remember that classic jingle). By the same token, "Hershey's Almond Joy's got nuts" just doesn't have the same ring.

Moreover, When Reese's Candy Company was sold to Hershey's in 1963 (Hershey's chocolate had always been used in its products), the old orange, brown and yellow remained untouched. Hershey's recognized the value of the packaging's nostalgic magnetism. Again, with candy brands, as with any brand, consistency, and in this instance, maintaining the emotional pull of nostalgia, are key.

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My nostalgic identification does not, however, mean I'm against candy research and development and the subsequent introduction of new product lines.
What is it about the ubiquitous yet elusive limited-edition candy that makes my pulse quicken?
 Take the limited-edition candy roll-out. What is it about the ubiquitous yet elusive limited-edition candy that makes my pulse quicken?

During my weekly stroll down the candy aisle at Walgreen's a few months back, nothing new or different was jumping out at me. But as I came to the end of my section, I did a double take at the cardboard end cap, which showcased not one, but two new limited-edition offerings from the Reese's line: Reese's With Marshmallow and Reese's With Caramel. I squeaked — audibly enough for the only other candy-aisle cruiser to turn her head. "I love it when they think up new ideas for old candy bars," I said. "It's the little things that keep me going sometimes."

Of course, limited-edition status confers a certain urgency. It's as if we were undergoing an alarming dearth of marshmallow and had better hurry up and buy as many of those Reese's With Marshmallow bars as possible before the planet's rapidly dwindling marshmallow reserves dry up completely. Searching for those Dark Chocolate M&M's and Mounds Island Orange bars, then, becomes its own sort of obsession; because their distribution seems to vary across the U.S., many candy chasers have resorted to eBay and online candy shops like candywarehouse.com to satisfy their unholy lust for 100 Grand Darks or Kit Kat Orange and Cremes.

ImageAccording to Richard Lenny, president and C.E.O. of Hershey Foods: "Our limited-edition items continue to be a source of profitable growth." The limited edition, it seems, is an effective enhancement of the company's brand.

But that's a fairly flavorless formulation. The fact is, candy branding speaks to our most primal appetites as consumers. Whether it's the delicious familiarity of classic wrappers and logos or the enticing novelty of limited editions, the branding of this sweet, seductive universe ensures that I'll always make a beeline for the candy aisle.

Several of the above ads are from the 1949 NWCA Candy Salesman Book; see more at The Imaginary World.