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As the director of new products for Hershey Chocolate USA, Kathie Rhyne has been involved with such successful launches as Hershey's Hugs, Reese's Nutrageous and Hershey's Crunchy Cookie Cups.

But then came the challenges of Sweet Escapes.

Among them: the company's first try in low-fat candy was an ill-fated version of its flagship Hershey bar made with caprenin. Also, the candy marketer was coming late to the category, following archrival M&M/Mars' Milky Way Lite.

The last strike: "Not everyone at senior levels were believers when we started," Ms. Rhyne says.

But start she did, in January '94.

"We had been on this tack of trying to come up with low-fat, low-calorie versions of existing products," says Ms. Rhyne. "I said, `Let's throw that out and work on great tasting, low-fat, low-calorie lines without ingredient restraints.' "

Once the Sweet Escapes formula was found, it became a rush to market. Without being too specific, she notes that "We did some things [differently] that in the past we would have done in a sequential way."

Even the ad strategy, executed by DDB Needham Worldwide, New York, didn't come easily. The final campaign, showing a cutaway of a brain with a fictional "chocolate zone" outlined on it. took a while to develop.

But when the campaign came together, it hit the right note, says Ms. Rhyne, 41, noting that consumers in focus groups immediately identified with it-some even going as far as to swear their brain contained an actual chocolate zone.

Ms. Rhyne remembers going on a sales call to Wal-Mart when a buyer for the retailer asked William Fields, then president-CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Division, to taste the product.

"He ate it and said, `This is a home run, let's put it on the front end.' I think I turned white," she laughs.

But it was the marketer that laughed all the way to the bank. Sweet Escapes notched $100 million in sales in its first year, and Information Resources Inc. ranked it among the top 10 new food products in '96, with sales of $69 million.

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