In 1884, a Pennsylvania chocolate manufacturer began offering a bite-sized, foil-wrapped conical chocolate drop that chocolate-loving Americans gobbled up. This small treat was destined to change the way both candy makers and consumers embraced the product. It was a mass marketing marvel.
That proud chocolatier set the standard for bite-sized, foil-wrapped chocolates. The candy journal International Confectioner raved over the beauty and freshness of this new creation. “Each piece is wrapped separately; they are packed like jewels. A large box of them can lie open several days before it is all eaten. They can’t go stale–each is wrapped in foil.“
This new chocolate production, this delightful small treat, and the marketing craze that followed, took the candy business by storm. Its byproduct was the frustration of many other chocolate producers of the time, prompting a whirlwind of competition. Among those simultaneously inspired and vexed by the original chocolate drop was none other than Milton Hershey.
That’s correct; Hershey’s Chocolate Kiss was not the original darling of chocolate treats. As a matter of fact, Hershey’s competitor, H.O. Wilbur and Sons of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was clobbering it.
Rival chocolate manufacturer H.O. Wilbur and Sons had been selling a bite-sized foil-wrapped conical chocolate drop called the “Wilbur Bud” since 1894. The Wilbur Bud was quite distinctive; the bottom of the candy was molded into a flower shape and the letters W-I-L-B-U-R embossed in each petal.
For more than a decade, the Wilbur Bud dominated the candy business. Its success lit a fire under Wilbur and Sons’ competitors, prompting an unprecedented race to develop a perfect “eating chocolate.” Contenders like Stollwerck Brothers, Rockwood and Co., and, of course, Milton Hershey were promoting their own chocolate goods, each promising purity, quality, and taste unrivaled. Finished candy goods were, for many of these companies, a side hustle to the real action in wholesale cocoa and chocolate. Chocolate ready-to-eat was in infancy.
Milton Hershey was early to realize the potential for selling eating chocolate on a national scale. He developed his own technique for making milk chocolate and began manufacturing small batches in 1900. Hershey’s chocolate bars were a huge success, and he quickly expanded, moving to an enormous new factory in the town that would come to be known as Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1905. After the first full year of manufacturing in the new factory, sales of Hershey’s chocolate products topped $1 million; that’s about $24 million in today’s dollars.
By 1907, the year the Kiss was introduced, sales had doubled to $2 million. By all standards, Hershey’s was a major player. But other chocolate houses had their own eating chocolate products. And when Hershey came up with the “Milk-Maid Chocolate Kiss” back in 1907, it wasn’t the only foil-wrapped chocolate bite in town. Rockwood’s Chocolate Dainties, which were sold four for a penny, would have been indistinguishable from Wilbur’s Buds or Hershey’s Kisses, in their little foil wrapper. The competition was fierce. In fact, H.O. Wilbur went to court in 1909 to try to stop Hersey and the “imitators.” He was unsuccessful.
The Hershey’s Kiss, then as now, wasn’t much to look at. It was just a plain cone. While it was perhaps unimpressive to behold, it did mean the chocolate could be dropped on a flat belt, rather than needing special molds to manufacture the Kiss. This would eventually lead to the distinguishing characteristic of the cone, but in 1907, the Kiss’s plain-Jane looks were a distinct disadvantage.
The decisive moment for the Hershey’s Kiss was 1921, when new manufacturing equipment allowed the foil wrapping to be automated, and also allowed for the inclusion of the “plume” that extends from the top of every Chocolate Kiss. By spring of 1922 Hershey’s was purchasing full-page ads blaring, “Insist upon having the ‘GENUINE’ Sweet Milk Chocolate Hershey’s KISSES. Be Sure They Contain the Identification Tag ‘HERSHEY’S’.” The plume was trademarked in 1924, ensuring that no other conical foil-wrapped chocolate could use the same technique to stand out.
H.O. Wilbur, and many other small American chocolate concerns, eventually fell behind Hershey in the race for market share. Milton Hershey was a brilliant businessman, and the Hershey Chocolate Company began to dominate the American chocolate market. Hershey, always humble and soft-spoken, was also a generous philanthropist, his charitable deeds often benefitting the citizens of Hershey, PA.
The story and legacy of Hershey is one that embodies the American dream: overcoming adversity, working hard, risking your own capital, employing people, and building a life of purpose. Milton Hershey, a man on a mission, persistently defied the odds. His history includes failed business ventures and bankruptcy, a successful caramel candy business sold to pursue chocolate, and even a near-voyage on the Titanic.
Hershey’s today is one of the major candy companies in the world, boasting annual sales in excess of $4 billion dollars. Hershey’s Kisses are a multi-million dollar share of the American candy market. When we think of small, bite-sized chocolate, we think of the Hershey’s Kiss. The success of the Kiss is still a matter of some controversy and opinion. But today, the fact remains, the Kiss is the number one brand.
What of Wilbur’s Chocolate Buds? You can still buy them by mail order, or out of a little Wilbur Chocolates storefront in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
The success of Hershey’s Chocolate Company, and in particular the Kiss, while fascinating, leaves us wanting answers. What if H.O. Wilbur had prevailed in court? Did personal capital and fight allow one company to emerge over another? Did technology create opportunity? How? What can we learn from Milton Hershey?
If, like Hershey’s Kiss, your company is innovating and fighting for growth in a commoditized industry, what would Milton Hershey advise? No doubt he would start with this simple truth: It matters how you build your brand. Persistence matters. His was a legacy of sweet success. What will your firm’s legacy be?
And this is why, Legacy Matters…
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