When the people who make Necco Wafers changed their recipe to use natural flavors and colors in 2009, they thought they were doing their customers a favor. But then those customers told the New England Confectionery Company — loudly, and repeatedly — that they preferred artificially enhanced candy.
"Our normal mail volume probably went up twenty-fold" after the change, says Necco Vice President of Research and Quality Jeff Green says. "Some positive, and some negative. But a lot of negative."
The common theme from Necco's longtime customers, Green tells NPR's Michele Norris, was, "You ruined my product, I will never buy anything from you again."
"Ouch," Norris says.
"Yes, ouch," Green says.
And so the company is going back to what it does best: making candy with artificial dyes and good old-fashioned sugar
As Green describes it, customers weren't as upset with the candies' taste as they were with their new color. Instead of artificial dyes and colorings, the revamped Necco wafer used natural colorings made from turmeric , red beets, purple cabbage, and cocoa powder. The company also replaced the artificial flavors in some of the wafers with natural flavors.
"The flavors, I thought, were very close, if not identical," says Green.
"I mean, considering that four of the flavors, we didn't touch. So, the colors influence people's perception of what things taste like."
Green admits that customers who eat Necco wafers more than he does might be more attuned to subtle changes in the taste. A report in the Boston Globe suggests that customers also felt the new flavors were inferior. After sales dropped by around 35 percent, he says, the company knew it had made a mistake, and that it was time to return to the artificial colorings.
"When you're tampering with the family jewels for [the first time in] 150 years," Green says, "we expected some fallout. I don't think we expected it to be quite what it was."
Green says the company wanted to try going natural because sales had been flat. And he'd read the "Southampton Six" report on negative health effects of artificial food colorings and industry reports of strong sales of "natural" products — as April Fulton has reported for The Salt.
"It seemed like a great idea at the time," Green says.
But the new colorings were expensive, and didn't hold their vibrant hue on the shelf.
"Part of the downfall of the concept, is that the colors were so much softer than the original ones," Green says.
Perhaps the problem for Necco, which was founded in 1847, is that, chemicals and all, many people do recognize Necco Wafers as food.
"A stronger part of our customer base is probably an older demographic," Green says. "And that's the part of it that we alienated."
He says that the all-natural shift prompted people to send stories about using the wafers to practice for communion wafers, or poker chips — even, reportedly, to fool tollbooths in Chicago.
"People were reminding us of what they grew up with," he says.
And maybe that's part of the reason people like eating them — to trigger old memories, and to eat a candy that promises neither to be a "brain food" nor an answer to life's problems. It's just a little candy wafer that's sweet, and unnaturally attractive.
As if we needed any proof of the candy's old-school gravitas, consider this statement, from Necco's website:
The U.S. Government requisitioned a major portion of the production of NECCO Wafers during World War II. The candy doesn't melt and is practically indestructible during transit, making it perfect for shipping overseas to the troops.
Yes, it turns out that Necco Wafers are a candy you can go to war with. And if they were good enough for the Greatest Generation, its customers said, they're good enough for me.
MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
We've heard plenty of stories these days about food companies trying to make their products just a little healthier, less sugar, fewer trans fats. But now, the story of a company that's had a change of heart in the other direction.
In a do-the-right-thing gesture, two years ago, the New England Candy Company known for its Necco Wafers decided to use beets and cabbage to color and flavor the circular chalky candy. It wanted to be all natural.
Well, sales sunk and complaints soared, so Necco is going back to doing what it does best: making candy with artificial dyes and good old fashioned sugar. For more on the switch and the switch back, we're joined by Jeff Green. He's the vice president for innovation at Necco.
Welcome to the program.
JEFF GREEN: Thank you.
NORRIS: Why did you originally decide to go all natural?
GREEN: When we started discussing it, you know, looking at sales, sales were kind of flat and we were looking to kind of put a little pizzazz behind our trademark product. Looking at the trade journals, natural food sales were up, organic food sales were up. Everybody was doing great, so it seemed like a great idea at the time.
NORRIS: There are eight different Necco Wafers in that little tube that you get and they vary in color. Could you just pick one of the four that you changed and walk us through what you did to try to make that change and how close to the mark you got?
GREEN: OK. I'll take licorice. The colors were so expensive and so unstable and to try to even approximate that charcoal gray color would have probably raised the price to, like, $5 a roll.
NORRIS: Oh, my goodness.
GREEN: And people didn't want to even pay a dollar a roll, or at least 35 percent of our consumer base didn't. So, you know, we got a light gray.
NORRIS: What was the response when you rolled out the new Neccos?
GREEN: There was a little bit of, like, wow, that's great. And then there was a lot of, what did you do to my Necco Wafers?
NORRIS: And did that come in the form of letters, emails?
NORRIS: Calls to the company?
GREEN: Exactly. You know, our normal mail volume probably went up 20-fold.
NORRIS: How much did sales drop?
GREEN: I think, roughly, about 35 percent.
NORRIS: Oh, big drop.
GREEN: Big drop.
NORRIS: You know, listening to you, it sounds like almost a New Coke experience.
GREEN: I've heard it referred to that way. You know, when you're tampering with the family jewels for 150 years, we expected some fallout, but I don't think we expected it to be quite what it was.
NORRIS: Is there a lesson here for candy manufacturers overall, that when people pick up a piece of candy, that's it's more than the flavor, that there's some sort of like childhood memory that's part of that and that you're entering into dangerous territory if you start to play with that?
GREEN: Absolutely. There's a lot of great stories about Necco Wafers and people growing up and using them for communion practice and all kinds of things that we hear anecdotally and, you know, those come back and they kind of haunted us through this period because people were reminding us of what they grew up with.
NORRIS: And World War II memories.
NORRIS: You know, Necco Wafers work great if you're playing cards, also.
GREEN: Yes, they do. And I understand they work in the Chicago toll booths, too.
NORRIS: Oh, get out of here. Is that true?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GREEN: I don't have any confirmation.
NORRIS: All right. Chicago listeners, you (unintelligible). Jeff Green, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you.
GREEN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to talk to you, as well.
NORRIS: Jeff Green is the nice president for innovation at Necco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.