“It’s our way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re here, don’t forget about us!’” Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews brand manager Bob Zender laughs, sitting in his Northeast Philly office at the Chew-churning factory. “For a six-month swath, we’ve been blasting the message.” The message in question is the iconic candy brand’s “Chewin’ It Old School” marketing blitz—a retro Philly-pride-meets-disco ad campaign you’ve probably seen slapped on SEPTA bus shelters and other places around town in recent months.
The ubiquitous ads represent a triumphant return for the North Philly candy factory, which has been struggling with an identity crisis since its 2003 sale to national sweets company Just Born. Its acquisition by the Bethlehem-based firm, whose portfolio also boasts Peeps, Hot Tamales, Mike & Ike and Zours, caused more than a few nostalgia pangs among the Goldenberg’s faithful. Those chocolate-drenched, jaw-wrenching morsels had been stuffing Philly trick-or-treat bags for as long as anyone could remember. (They’d even been taken into combat by World War I soldiers as a durable, protein-packed treat.) And now—the Peeps guys? Really?
But at the time, a decade ago, Goldenberg’s required a boost. Revenue had stagnated, and the product desperately needed some national traction. “When the Borns purchased the factory, they brought in an agency to look at what Goldenberg’s was doing and how to go national,” says Zender. “They got new packaging, made new ads, and took them across the country.”
Targeting “Snickers people”—the 18-to-24-year-old males who are America’s biggest chocolate-and-peanut-candy consumers—Chews went rogue, ditching the wrapper’s classic design for a zany, cartoonish look and the new moniker “Chew-Ets Peanut Chews.” The recipe was tweaked. The treat partnered with the Mountain Dew Action Sports Tour. It hit the West Coast. But “Snickers people” were unimpressed, and sales tanked. Worse, local loyalists thought the company had disappeared entirely, confused by the new, adolescent packaging.
It was time to retrench. Just Born’s marketers hired a slick new ad agency and a PR firm, and assembled a series of consumer focus groups. Then they put together eight packaging “concepts,” most with a retro, vintage tone. Nostalgia, they found, was the Chews’ magic ingredient. “The connection to Philly was key,” says Matt Pye, a company VP. “Retro resonates with both older and younger consumers.”
On New Year’s Day 2012, Zender and his crew hit the Mummers Parade, debuting the “Chewin’ It Old School” campaign by tossing free Chews from a 1967 VW bus bearing the endearing tagline “Philly born & raised.” (Other slogans have included “Avenue of the Arts will always be Broad Street to us,” and “We were on South Street when it was punk.”) They’ve aired four quirky TV commercials, and even developed an app that lets you race an Old School bus through the streets of Philly. And they’re feeling the love: After nine years of little or no growth, sales have spiked by 26 percent since the campaign launch.
Next year, the brand plans to tap its New York roots (the candy’s been in Brooklyn almost as long as it’s been here) with a similar Old School campaign. Baltimore, another traditional market, will likely follow. From there? Well, maybe the West Coast deserves another shot.
This article originally ran in the June 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.