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How long have Airheads been around?

Happy National Candy Day! I'm sure we could all use a little sweet in our life right now... unless you binged on Halloween, then you may still be candied out!


The two top-selling candies in America have been M & M’S and Reese's Peanut Butter cups. Forrest Mars, Sr. and William Murrie developed M&M’s following the Spanish Civil War. They stamped the new candy with the initials of their surnames. In 1941, they debuted the candies, and they were given to American soldiers serving in the Second World War. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are made by Hershey's and first in 1928.


Though I do love chocolate, I decided to go with Airheads for today's Daily Doodle... I have several bags left over from Halloween, so they are on my mind. They are one, if not my #1 favorite non-chocolate candy, and they are processed in a nut-free facility, so I feel like they are the safest bet to hand out during Trick-or-Treating in case I get a trick-or-treater who has a nut allergy.


Airheads were invented by Steve Bruner. He submitted his plans for the development of the product known as “AIRHEADS” August 7, 1985. Responsible for the Graphic Design, Name, and Intellectual property known as “Airheads” for the company, at the time, known as Van Melle Incorporated located in Erlanger Kentucky, he never benefited monetarily as he signed an agreement when I joined Van Melle (in 1984 as the Director of Marketing) that anything he developed while working at the company was owned by them. The candy has gone on to be one of the largest non-chocolate confectionary items in North America.


Van Melle had a product they were working on in Germany. It was a soft flat fruit chew placed in between two pieces of rice paper.  They thought it had some real points of difference and they offered it to Lipton Tea as a new product possibility.  Lipton Tea liked it and agreed to terms calling it the fruit and wafer bar.  Van Melle set up a satellite production facility in Edgewood, Kentucky in their warehouse. At the same time Lipton was also developing Fruit Wrinkles. After sometime Van Melle had refined the fruit and wafer bars to the point they were ready to go into limited production. Lipton wanted to test the product against Fruit Wrinkles to see which would be more accepted by the public.  The product winner of the testing would get a national launch and Lipton’s marketing muscle behind it.


So they had Van Melle produce about 10,000 cases for limited sales and focus group testing.

After the dust settled, Lipton Tea informed Van Melle The Fruit Wrinkles was preferred over the Fruit and Wafer Bars.  The rice paper seemed to be a turn off.


At this point, Van Melle had all of this machinery in the warehouse that wasn't being used. So, Bruner asked the R&D folks to leave the rice paper off and bring the fruit center to a meeting so they could weigh their options. According to Steve Bruner, the production people brought in a blob on a plate and said this is what we have. They said they could extrude it in the form of a flat bar.  The issue they had was it was very sticky, so they would have to find a wrapper that the product would not adhere to.  Fortunately, after much testing, they found a Mylar wrapper that worked perfectly.


With their Food Technologist, Kim Meader, her mixer, and a crew, they went down to Memphis, Tennessee and set up a sampling table at Wayne’s Cash and Carry. What made Wayne’s so special was the fact that customers came there and bought bags of 240 count candy for their own home use. Whatever the per capital sugar consumption rate was in the US at the time, the consumers at Wayne’s ate a lot of candy. Kim Meader mixed the flavors and after two days the flavor panel was decided.


Bruner was taught at M&M/Mars that a name takes a little over a generation to become part of confectionary landscape, unless you use a phrase or name that everyone has heard before. So he went to his sons and asked the question, "What would you call your friend who did something silly?" They came up with all kinds of monikers, but the most intriguing was 'Airhead'. Focus groups were set-up first to see what they thought of the name itself and it rated very high with children nine through fifteen.


Bruner grabbed his sketch pad and crafted a few images and the advertising agency Whitaker and Associates of Cincinnati, Ohio took it from there. Refining the drawings and selecting Pantone boards for further focus group testing for packaging colors. The size of the first bar was 7/8 oz.  Today, the size is down to .55 oz.


When the product was launched, it was just one item in a 24-count box. The candy had a bright deep red wrapper, however the flavor 'Cherry' or 'Strawberry' was not listed, just simply Airheads. They wanted the consumer to decide if they liked the red flavor. Years earlier Bruner had learned that the east coast preferred strawberry and the center of the country wanted cherry. 


Though he agreed there is a difference, kids see red and grab it.  Van Melle later changed and went to other flavors as it made sense for line extensions. On the wrapper, Bruner used a play on words, "a new high in fruity flavors". Coming out of the hippie generation the words high could be used in many different ways and he thought it was apropos of a balloon graphic and it worked.


Pricing was a real sales driver for Airheads, with just one flavor that was supposed to sell for 10 cents. The distributors and brokers noticed it was a very large piece of candy having a 10-cent SRP. This helped as many of them introduced it as a 25-cent item instead with a very large profit margin for retailers. During the initial presentations many accounts turned it down. The candy had to be placed in several distribution houses with the promise to pick it up if it did not sell.


Ultimately, the young consumers knew a lot more then many of the buyers. Van Melle aggressively gained distribution in New York and Los Angeles and word of mouth spread. They started getting fan mail and knew things were headed in the right direction. The 10 case orders became 25 and then 50 and then 100 cases from the same customer. Today they sell truckloads and many millions of dollars expanding the product line into all types of items. 


The original balloon face and Airhead graphic is still used today.



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