An overview of the history of airheads

Category: Food & Drink

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blog details: That was the day I submitted my plans to develop the product known as "AIRHEADS". It was my responsibility to create the graphic design, name, and intellectual property for the company, known as Van Melle Incorporated in Erlanger, Kentucky. Today, it is one of the most oversized non-chocolate confectionery items in North America. When I joined Van Melle as Director of Marketing in 1984, I signed an agreement stating that any product I developed would be owned by the company. The story is a fantastic turn of events. Mentos was our main product, and Van Melle Melle, based in Breda, Holland wanted us to expand our product line. These events led to the birth of Airheads. In Germany, Van Melle was working on a product. They offered it to Lipton Tea as a new product because it had some real points of difference. Tea liked it and agreed to call it the fruit and wafer bar. In our warehouse in Edgewood, Kentucky, we set up a satellite production facility. Lipton was also developing Fruit Wrinkles at the same time. We had refined the fruit and wafer bars enough to be ready for limited production after some time. Lipton tested the product against Fruit Wrinkles to see which would be more popular with consumers. Product winners would receive a national launch and Lipton's marketing support. Van Melle produced about 10,000 cases for limited sales and focus group testing. Lipton Tea informed us that Fruit and Wafer Bars were preferred over The Fruit Wrinkles. The rice paper turned me off. Now that we had this machinery in our warehouse, there were a number of things we could do with it. I therefore asked the R&D folks to leave the rice paper off and bring the fruit center to a meeting so we can weigh our options. They brought in a blob on a plate and said this is what we have. They said they could extrude it into a flat bar. The problem was that it was very sticky. We had to find a wrapper that wouldn't stick to the product. We found a Mylar wrapper that worked perfectly after much testing. Then it was a question of flavor. Using our Food Technologist Kim Meader and her mixer, we set up a sampling table at Wayne's Cash and Carry in Memphis, Tennessee. Customers at Wayne's bought 240 count bags of candy to take home. Wayne's customers ate a lot of candy, no matter what the per capita sugar consumption rate in the US was at the time. After Kim mixed the flavors, we had the flavor profile we wanted after two days. M&M/Mars taught me that a name takes a little over a generation to become part of the confectionary landscape unless you use a phrase or name that everyone knows. I asked my sons the question. What would you call a friend who did something silly? All kinds of names were proposed, but Airhead was the most intriguing. I set up focus groups first to gauge what children from nine to fifteen thought of the name itself. I then took out my doodle pad and drew the name on a sheet with a balloon face. From there, Whitaker and Associates of Cincinnati, Ohio, took over. They refined my drawings and did pantone boards for further focus group testing of packaging colors. The first bar was 7/8 oz in size. Today, the size is .55 oz. Nevertheless, the integrity of the product remains intact. Initially, we only offered one item in a 24-count box. The wrapper was a deep red color. We didn't call it Cherry or Strawberry, just Airheads. We wanted the consumer to decide whether they liked the red flavor. Years earlier, I learned that the east coast liked strawberry and the center of the country liked cherry. The difference is that a child sees red and grabs it. Later, we changed flavors to accommodate line extensions. Word play on the wrapper, a new high in fruity flavors. The hippie generation used the word high in a variety of ways. It seemed apropos for a balloon graphic, and it worked. Airheads' pricing was a major sales driver. Originally, we were only going to sell one flavor for 10 cents. The candy had a 10-cent SRP and was very large, so distributors and brokers were attracted to it. They introduced it as a 25-cent item, so retailers had a large profit margin. Many accounts declined it during the initial presentations. It was placed in several distribution houses with the promise that we would pick it up if it did not sell. In the end, young consumers knew a lot more than many of the buyers. Distribution was aggressively gained in New York and Los Angeles, and word of mouth started getting fan mail, so we knew we were on the right track. The 10 case order became 25, then 50, and finally 100 from the same customer. Today, they sell truckloads and millions of dollars' worth of goods, expanding their product line to all kinds of items. My balloon face and Airhead graphics are still used today.


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