Want to talk candy trends? It’s not unusual to talk about new offerings combining both sweet and sour flavors. Then again, sweet and sour also describes life itself the candy industry

Times are changing in confections, especially when it comes to where consumers are purchasing new products. In late-January 2021, Godiva announced it would shutter all of its US retail locations in the by the end of the first quarter. COVID-19 has dimmed the prospects for specialty chocolate retail stores as the pandemic pushes consumers to grocery stores and online distribution channels.
Perhaps not surprisingly, overall innovation in confectionery products was less than stellar in 2020. Innova Market Insights data show launches for the first 11 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 were down just under 18%. Chewing gum was especially hard hit, posting a decline of more than 30%.

Chocolate Choices
Chocolate confectionery launches were down in 2020, but not as severely as confectionery launches overall, coming in around 15% below 2019’s tally through the first 11 months of 2020. Some brands—such as The Hershey Company’s Kit Kat—seemed to buck the downturn.
Kit Kat Duos from Hershey tapped the “two flavors in one product” approach that has long been popular in non-chocolate confectionery. Mint + Dark Chocolate and Mocha + Chocolate were two flavor examples here. Kit Kat also channeled pie flavors with its Apple Pie variant; and cake flavors, with its Birthday Cake flavor. 

Kit Kat hopes to keep the momentum going in 2021 with the launch of Kit Kat Thins, a new slimmer version of Kit Kat with two layers of crispy wafers instead of the standard three.  

Hershey had other noteworthy launches in 2020, including Reese’s Thins White Thins Peanut Butter Cups featuring a white chocolate flavor. Hershey’s Cookies ‘n Chocolate Bar also combined two favorite flavors in one offering.

Seasonal innovation has been an increasing initiative of late. Just in time for Christmas, Mars Wrigley introduced M&M’s Sugar Cookie with a white chocolate, sugar cookie-flavored shell with a crispy center. This January, Hershey announced a wave of seasonal offerings for Valentine’s Day, Easter, and more. The most newsworthy of the bunch is likely Reese's Mallow-Top Peanut Butter Cups, which deliver a nice color contrast and “extra marshmallow flavored goodness on top of the iconic peanut butter and chocolate duo.” 
Finding new ways to add texture to smooth chocolate products seemed to a priority in 2020. Hershey’s Giant Milk Chocolate, Peanuts and Reese’s Pieces Bar added crunch with Reese’s Pieces candies. Reese’s Big Cup with Pretzels used the latter snack to add salty crunch to a favorite chocolate brand. Mars Wrigley started 2021 with the launch of SNICKERS Peanut Brownie, which features two individual squares, coated in the classic SNICKERS chocolate, with a layer of caramel and a chewy peanut-brownie filling. 

Mars Wrigley also targeted a snack crunch experience last summer with new M&M’s Chocolate Popcorn, a milk chocolate with a popcorn-flavored crispy rice center. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Pretzel Bites had a similar look and crunch. Hershey’s Cookies N Creme Cookie Bites Chocolate did not go the crunchy route, but added the appeal of a chocolate cookie center to chocolate bites.

Other chocolate innovations of note included those from Godiva Chocolatier Inc., Wyomissing, Pa. It introduced Godiva Signature Mini-Bars in flavors such as Sea Salt Dark Chocolate. Last August saw Nestlé USA introduce Nestlé Toll House Bite-Sized Edible Cookie Dough and Chocolate, refrigerated real cookie dough balls enrobed in chocolate. Kraft Heinz also showed some holiday flair with Planters Chocolate & Nut Bark, a chocolate offering studded with peanuts.

Keto blossomed as a chocolate confectionery trend in 2020. Launches described using the term “keto” or “ketogenic” increased more than four times from 2019 through the first 11 months of 2020. EatingEvolved, Setauket, N.Y., introduced Evolved Almond Butter Keto Cups with just 2g of net carbs per serving. Kiss my Keto LLC, Los Angeles, introduced a Pumpkin Seeds and Sea Salt Ketogenic Dark Chocolate bar also infused with MCTs (medium chain triglycerides).

Two ingredient trends bear watching for 2021: CBD and vegan chocolate. CBD has been trickling into chocolate confectionery since 2018 and has definite growth potential. Ma Hua LLC, Denver, set an example last year with TruPura CBD Black Cherry Milk Chocolate Bar with 30mg of CBD per square “to allow your mind to settle into a calm, dreamy peace.” 

Vegan chocolate also is gaining momentum. Launches of new “vegan” chocolate confectionery products rose from 11.4% of launches in 2019 to 13.4% of launches through November 2020. Trader Joe’s Crunchy Cinnamon Squares Vegan Chocolate Bar is an example of what may be coming here.

Non-Chocolate Candies & Gums
Flavor innovation from soft drink brands helped keep non-chocolate confectionery launches interesting. Tic Tac Coca-Cola Mints (Ferrero USA Inc.) was one of the year’s biggest launches. Sour Patch Kids Crush Fruit Mix Soft and Chewy Candy (Mondelez International) included flavor help from the Crush soft drink brand.

Strong, hot, and sour flavors made an impression. Mondelez took the spicy route—like many snack makers—and added Dentyne Fire Spicy Cinnamon flavored sugar free gum. Tic Tac X-Freeze Strong Mint upped the ante in breath mints while Just Born Inc. revitalized a popular Easter candy with Peeps Hot Tamales Fierce Cinnamon Flavored Marshmallow. Sour flavors also were on-trend with Big Sour Patch Kids were “2x bigger” for more flavor and more fun. Hairbo Sour Cubes Exotic Flavors Gummi Candy and Jolly Rancher Gummies in a Sour flavor were also new.

Perhaps last year’s most interesting sour flavor innovation came from Russell Stover with its Sours! Easter bunny candy. In contrast to traditional white chocolate Easter bunny candy, Russell Stover’s bright red colored Easter bunny is a “watermelon flavored white fudge bunny with a sour kick” to shake things up.

Gummies seemed primed to build on 2020’s launch momentum with encouraging innovation in early 2021, evidenced by the January 2021 debut of Ferrara’s multi-texture NERDS Gummy Clusters. They feature mini–Rainbow NERDS, which surround and accentuate a fruity, gummy center. Also scheduled for a first quarter launch are SKITTLE Gummies from Mars Wrigley. Available in the Original Five Fruity Flavors and Wild Berry varieties, SKITTLES Gummies promise “the same intense fruit flavors you know and love—in a delicious innovative gummy form.”

More conventional and aimed at the Valentine’s Day 2021 selling opportunity, Tic Tac Cherry Flavored Mints from Ferrero feature tasty mints decorated with notes including "XOXO," "U Rock," "Friend," "Bestie" and more to capitalize on the occasion. The occasion could be muted in 2021 if kids are still locked down in “Zoom school” and are unable to swap Valentine’s Day treats.

Confectionery makers proved that flavor inspiration can come from anywhere—even Thanksgiving dinner. Ferrara Candy Co. introduced Brach’s Turkey Dinner Candy Corn. After its debut for Halloween 2019, Zombie SKITTLES (Mars Wrigley) returned in 2020 in five flavors: Petrifying Citrus Punch, Mummified Melon, Boogeyman Blackberry, Chilling Black Cherry and Blood Red Berry. Elsewhere, The Jelly Belly Candy Co. looked to a popular doughnut chain to create Jelly Belly Krispy Kreme Doughnuts jelly beans.  

Functional products are generally not a major push for non-chocolate confectionery products, but a handful of launches showed it could be done. 

Updraft Ventures Inc., Fife, Wash., says its Poop Like a Champion Super Fiber Gummies are “made with the prebiotic goodness of chicory root fiber, which nourishes gut bacteria, improves digestion, and helps relieve constipation.” Essential Candy, Wellington, Fla., says its Digestive Blend Hard Candy is infused with lemon, ginger, and peppermint essential oils to help to relieve nausea. Last but not least, SmartSweets Inc., Vancouver, B.C., notes that its plant-based SmartSweets Sourmelon Bites are a good source of dietary fiber (13g per bag) with only 3g of sugar per bag.

Genius Gourmet Keto Gum took chewing gum in a keto direction with a product that “makes it easy to stay in ketosis for an extended period.” 

Respawn 5 Mental Focus / Reaction Time Gum was arguably the most interesting chewing gum launch of the year, said to be designed for gamers by gamers and featuring vitamins B5, B6, B12, niacin and added green tea extract. The COVID-19 pandemic produced a major spike in video game sales, a wave that confectionery brands may be able to ride.

Tom Vierhile is vice president, Strategic Insights, North America for the Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights and has over 20 years of experience in new consumer packaged goods reporting and analysis. Tom holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from St. Bonaventure University and an MBA from the State University of New York at Buffalo.  Follow him on Twitter at @TomVierhile.