Candymakers get creative for a socially distanced Halloween
Next weekend, Halloween’s longtime standards of haunted graveyards, howling ghouls and things that go bump in the night will be underscored by the scariest fright of all: an airborne respiratory virus that has threatened to upend the family-favorite holiday as we know it.
Halloween is one of the calendar’s most important events for candymakers and costume-sellers, and with marketers having discussed how to best approach the night of Oct. 31 since the summer, many brands are now going all-in on COVID-safe messaging this year that encourages consumers to stay safe while keeping the festival of fright intact.
Hershey Co. and Mars Wrigley, which separately make some of the holiday’s most sought-after treats, both have Halloween-related marketing efforts running on multiple fronts this year in the hopes of maintaining steady candy sales.
In addition to campaigns devoted to its individual candy brands, Hershey this year assembled the “Hershey Halloween Squad” composed of five experts including a child psychologist, a lifestyle author and a husband-and-wife crafting duo who have been churning out recipes, at-home projects and decorating tips all October long.
Hershey was one of the first candymakers to get in on the spooky action this year, releasing four Halloween-inspired chocolate products in early July: Kit Kat Witch’s Brew, Reese’s Franken-Cup, Vampire Milk Chocolate Kisses and Hershey’s Cookies ‘N’ Creme Fangs. Hitting shelves nearly four months ahead of Halloween, Hershey wanted to “be prepared for a strong recovery while also making smart choices to mitigate risk if consumer behavior remains impacted,” CEO Michele Buck said on a conference call earlier this year.
To diversify their marketing for this year’s unconventional Halloween, Mars teamed up with Disney and 20th Digital Studio to sponsor a series of “Bite Size” short horror films available on FX, Freeform and Hulu until Oct. 31. The films will feature brand integrations with M&M’s, Twix, Snickers and more, and will serve as “one way we are able to ensure our fans have an enjoyable and entertaining Halloween season,” Mars Wrigley Media Director Ray Amati says.
Trick or treat… or don’t
While various municipalities, from Beverly Hills to Toronto, have banned traditional trick-or-treating in line with public health advisories, the continent’s appetite for fun-sized candy has proven steadfast, with neither snow nor rain nor pandemic able to dampen it.
Overall media spend on Halloween candy-related marketing is down 19% from 2019 in the United States, but in-store candy sales have been resilient, up 26% year-over-year as of late September, according to a Halloween Candy Tracker published by market research firm Numerator.
“Six months into COVID, consumers, brands and retailers are all still adapting in real-time. In the case of Halloween, consumers have acted early,” says Numerator CEO Eric Belcher, whose data also found that more than 6 in 10 consumers will buy candy for home consumption in 2020. Meanwhile, the amount of households planning to pass out goodies to trick-or-treaters is down 25% this year.
To encourage the longstanding door-to-door tradition, Reese’s—which spent more than 40% of last year's marketing budget in October, according to ad sales analyst MediaRadar—created a remote-controlled front door on wheels to roam neighborhoods and pass out candy via a robotic, voice-activated dispenser. All kids (or chocolate-loving adults) have to say is “trick or treat,” and a king-size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups will pop out of the door’s mail slot.
Other brands including Sour Patch Kids and Kool-Aid (or should we say, Ghoul-Aid) have flipped the script entirely with a concept collectively dubbed “reverse trick-or-treating,” in which candy and goodies are brought directly to consumers with socially distanced drop-offs.
“We know so many kids in the U.S. look forward to typical Halloween traditions like dressing up in costumes and collecting a respectable candy stash,” says Danielle Freid, brand manager of Sour Patch Kids, which is organizing contactless candy deliveries in a dozen American cities.
Those supply drops will consist of Sour Patch Kids’ “Zombies” candy and SPK-branded toilet paper, because “nothing screams Halloween like TPing your living room and wreaking some safe Halloween havoc indoors,” the Mondelez-owned brand said in a statement.
Cashing in while brands can
Even for brands that are not traditionally viewed as major Halloween players, such as snack maker Hostess, the spooky season can be a lucrative time to foster customer engagement and support public health initiatives.
Citing data from this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer survey, which found 84% of consumers believe brands should play a role in providing solutions for COVID-related challenges, Hostess opted to launch its first-ever Halloween campaign to engage consumers via digital and social channels.
Its “Bring Hostess Halloween Home” push taps celebrity chef George Duran and Instagram “micro-influencers” to share creative recipe projects starring Twinkies, Donettes and more from Hostess’s lineup. The first-of-its-kind campaign, which debuted two weeks ago, will emphasize the role the brand’s snack cakes can play in a more intimate Halloween setting.
“We certainly felt that [Halloween] was a huge opportunity for Hostess to come in and help parents find creative solutions,” says Lisa Mathison, director of brand activation for Hostess Brands. She adds that the company is focusing on the vast majority of Americans who say they’ll be altering how they celebrate Halloween in 2020—83% in all, according to proprietary consumer research conducted by Hostess ahead of the campaign’s launch.
Both Hostess’s own data and the Edelman Trust Barometer were “really strong indicators that consumers want help, and they want inspiration, and they want to hold onto the joy of Halloween in as many ways as possible,” Mathison says, even if that assistance comes from a non-traditional brand.
In the spirit of Halloween, Chipotle is hosting a virtual “Boorito” celebration and offering digital trick-or-treaters BOGO (buy one, get one) coupons, while Krispy Kreme is also partaking in the reverse trick-or-treating trend, offering a dozen individually wrapped doughnuts for $1 with the purchase of a standard dozen. (The doughnut chain, as it has for many years, will also give customers a free doughnut if they come in wearing a costume).
Retailers like Target and Lowe’s are diversifying their Halloween plans this year with drive-thru trick-or-treating events in order to better connect with consumers, and doubling as a contingency plan should traditional Halloween product sales slump.
What will you be for Halloween?
Meanwhile, dedicated costume-sellers—the yin to candymakers’ Halloween yang—may be in for a tougher time this year as fewer consumers look to dress up while staying home. Year-over-year costume sales are projected to fall $550 million this season, which is more than the predicted drop in candy and decoration revenues combined, Bloomberg News reports.
The coronavirus pandemic has hammered retailers such as Party City and Spirit Halloween, which have opened (and re-opened) fewer brick-and-mortar locations than in previous years.
That, coupled with the impact of unforeseen competition from nontraditional outlets like Home Depot, whose 12-foot skeleton decoration was the talk of the internet earlier this month, has only exacerbated an already-uncertain outlook.
Still, some brands, candy and non-candy alike, are embracing Halloween costumes as a complementary aspect of their holiday marketing.
In another ad bid from the Mars Wrigley portfolio, Skittles released a limited edition Halloween costume: a wearable pack of “Zombie Skittles” on a 6-foot frame to encourage social distancing, enhanced by a button that can emit “the smell of rotten zombie” to keep other Halloween revelers at bay.
Dunkin’ also hopped on the costume wagon, partnering with Spirit Halloween to retail a set of festive garments that allow consumers to dress up as a coffee cup and a strawberry doughnut from the Massachusetts-based breakfast chain.
“Every Halloween, we see people creating their own Dunkin’ costumes to proudly show their passion for our brand,” says Drayton Martin, VP brand stewardship at Dunkin’, which notes in a press release that the $40 costumes, which will be sold exclusively via Spirit’s online store, are the first to ever be officially licensed by the brand.