It's okay to take candy from strangers in new Hershey's ads

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Bob Williams Heartwarming Video
Bob Williams Heartwarming Video Credit: Hershey

Bob Williams has been randomly handing out oversize Hershey's chocolate bars to people in his Long Grove, Iowa town for nearly two decades. And now he's starring in the brand's newest campaign.

Williams is one face of Hershey's "heartwarming the world" campaign that breaks Thursday, on what would have been founder Milton Hershey's 161st birthday. Hershey became aware of Williams after the mother of a man who works in the company's strategy department passed along a magazine clipping about the 93-year-old's random acts of chocolate, according to CMO Jill Baskin. Since then, "He sort of became our north star," she says.

Hershey felt the sentiment was right for the times. "If there was a time to warm up America it might be right now," says Baskin. She wouldn't pinpoint anything specific going on in the country that prompted the idea, but notes that the company is trying to push its own message of togetherness, saying "right now there are not a lot of things everyone can agree on, but everyone can agree on Hershey."

In addition to the Williams online video, two other real-life stories are showcased in other videos, one of two younger guys who hand out Hershey's bars to strangers and another about an even younger group of students who pass bars with friendly notes around to students in their high school.

Along with the online videos and some TV commercials, Hershey's push includes the distribution of nearly 200,000 coupons, each good for two free bars: one to get for one's self and one to give away. Hershey employees will also each get a dozen bars to pass out on their own. And there's an integration planned for Thursday's fourth hour of "Good Morning America."

Williams, who turns 94 on Sunday, keeps stacks of Hershey's bars in his freezer (which is about the cutest thing we've seen in a video in some time, even if it the closeup is extreme product placement). And while he isn't yet in a TV commercial, Baskin sounds eager to trim the longer video about Williams into a TV spot, calling the clip "the living embodiment of our strategy."

For now, other TV spots that will start running Friday. One is a bit of a brand anthem commercial. Hershey worked on the campaign with a Dentsu Aegis team. Hershey began working with Dentsu's McGarryBowen earlier this year.

There's also a husband who buys a bar for his wife when he stops at the gas station's shop in the pouring rain.

And there's a mom who tries to sweeten the pain of a daughter's breakup with a Hershey miniature.

Hershey controls about 45 percent of the U.S. chocolate market with brands including Reese's, Hershey's and Kit Kat, according to Morningstar analyst Erin Lash. While the industry doesn't feel too much pressure from store-branded products, there is plenty of name-brand competition. Mars Wrigley is seemingly constantly marketing treats such as M&Ms and Snickers and spending big bucks on efforts including Super Bowl ads, while Mondelez has been promoting Milka Oreo bars in the U.S. for a couple of years. And now Nestle U.S. confectionery brands including Butterfinger and Baby Ruth are poised for some renewed energy after being bought earlier this year by Italy's Ferrero.

But as Hershey puts the focus on its namesake chocolate bar in this campaign, it's also embarking on a deal that takes it further beyond chocolate. The company announced it's buying Pirate Brands, the maker of snacks such as Pirate's Booty, from B&G Foods, a food marketer that has owned it for five years. Hershey's latest snack deal comes months after it acquired SkinnyPop popcorn maker Amplify Snack Brands.

In its second-quarter earnings report issued in late July, Hershey Co. pointed to new campaigns, including one for the Hershey's brand as important potential contributors to its growth. The Hershey's brand campaign is a way to try to be more present in people's lives and, of course, to remind them to buy more bars. Hershey Co.'s overall North American sales rose 5.6 percent in the second quarter, helped by the acquisition of Skinny Pop-maker Amplify Snack Brands. So-called U.S. retail takeaway of its candy, mints, and gum, or how much of those products people actually bought, fell 0.4 percent in the 12 weeks ended July 15.

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