NEW YORK CITY — The ball gum segment of the bulk vending market is about to get very interesting. The Topps Co. Inc. has announced plans to re-launch its legendary Bazooka bubblegum in a wide variety of brand extensions, including bulk-vendible ball gum.
Although still one of the best-known brands of gum in the U.S., Bazooka has been languishing somewhat over the past few years, overshadowed by the firm’s other lines of confections and trading cards. Now poised for a resurgence, the Bazooka brand, which has been reported to have sold 30 billion pieces during its more than half-century history, is about to reintroduce itself to the marketplace.
Backed by an experienced marketing and brand management team, Topps is seeking to expand the Bazooka franchise into bulk vending as well as new retail channels. According to company officials, the new Bazooka features a softer chew formulation and broad product lineup that includes the traditional chunk style gum along with Bazooka Bubble Gum Twist Wrap Pieces, Bazooka Bubble Gum Filled Pops, and, of course, ball gum in an 850-count format.
Still a household name, Bazooka currently boasts an impressive 84% unaided brand awareness among the 6- to 14-year-old demographic, according to the Bubble Gum Incidence Study (October 2004). Not bad for a brand that has received only minimal attention or promotion over the past few years and last year failed to attract a buyer with deep enough pockets when Topps put it on the market.
“This brand is an absolute crown jewel for Topps,” said Paul Cherrie, managing director for Canada. “However, it has been underleveraged for a number of years and we have every intention of trying to revitalize this underutilized asset of the Topps Company.”
If Cherrie’s name sounds familiar to bulk vending veterans, it should. He was a key member of the team at Concord Confections that revitalized the long-languishing Dubble Bubble brand after its purchase from Marvel Entertainment, which had purchased it from Fleer.
Cherrie’s appearance on the Topps team bodes well for Bazooka’s chances both in terms of brand building and success in bulk vending. And Cherrie is not the only member of the Concord team now at Topps. The company has also retained the Chicago-based public relations firm Salmon Borre Group, which proved instrumental in engineering Dubble Bubble promotions, including the Dubble Bubble National Bubble Blowing Contest held at more than 2,000 Wal-Marts and garnered nationwide attention in both local media and network morning shows. A profile on the Food Network as well as some creative tie-ins with the Rosie O’Donnell Show didn’t hurt, either.
ONE MORE TIME
Dubble Bubble could in fact prove a road map for Bazooka. The similarities are obvious. Faced with high-profile success in other fields, neither Topps nor Marvel had been persistent in promoting their storied brands of chewing gum before they were rediscovered and then reinvigorated.
“I wouldn’t say they ‘neglected’ Bazooka,” Cherrie explained, “but there were many other priorities at Topps. They had and continue to have a run of very successful candy products that caused the company to take its eye off this little gem called Bazooka. But only because they had some real tigers by the tail.” He added, “I can personally sympathize, given that Concord had purchased the Dubble Bubble brand under similar circumstances way back in 1998. It was a strong brand, but just got a little dusty over the years.”
On the business side, there are some strategic similarities as well, including an aggressive move toward brand extensions in both the bulk and retail markets. Returning the Dubble Bubble brand to its original luster in gumball form brought brand recognition to an industry and consumers largely accustomed to viewing gumballs as anonymous, no-name commodities. That restoration process, as bulk industry insiders are well aware, eventually captured an estimated 75% of the bulk vended ball gum marketplace.
However, Cherrie is quick to point out the significant differences between the two brands. Topps, of course, is the original manufacturer of Bazooka, having brought it to market in 1947. Unlike Concord, who bought the Dubble Bubble brand for purposes of reestablishing the name, Topps’ renewed interest, according to Cherrie, is a strategic decision. “Bazooka was the market leader for many years,” he explained. “And then it just got…not ignored, but I think the word that’s used is ‘parked.’ It was parked, and in this fast-moving confectionary business, parked is a bad place to be.”
Although posting respectable sales over the years, the Bazooka brand was unquestionably overshadowed by collectible cards and high-profile confectionary items such as Thumb Fun, Juice Bubble Gum and even a Topps line of comic books. Then, when the company went looking for buyers for the legendary brand last year, offers did not match valuations.
On the upside, Cherrie cites the relative positions of the two brands at the time of their revitalization processes. “There’s a real difference here. The Dubble Bubble brand had fallen to quite an incredible low by the time of the Concord purchase. It had literally been on a 20-year slide. The Bazooka brand is coming from a much stronger position, which in our eyes is going to make this task even easier.”
So, how do you unpark a brand? The answer, according to Nicole Palmieri Kenney, the Topps brand manager, is: very aggressively. In addition to launching a major public relations effort, Kenney explained, the company is also planning a high-profile advertising and promotion campaign that will include the first television ads for the product in more than a decade.
“We’re not a huge company, but we are dynamic,” she said. “And we’re very entrepreneurial in that we can focus where we need to. And we really believe Bazooka can be a huge brand again. It has all the qualities of a huge brand.”
Key among these qualities, Kenney and Cherrie point out, is not only an enviable brand name recognition among their core demographic, but also an extremely strong multigenerational name recognition. Not only did mom and dad chew the stuff themselves when they were kids, but so did grandma and grandpa.
While most of the brand extension activity around the revitalized Bazooka will center on retail sales in its various new and traditional formats, including “tubs,” “lay down bags,” and “peg bags,” the firm’s aggressive marketing strategy will also extend to bulk vending, beginning with the company’s prismatic display cards.
“Clearly the vending business is going to be helped along by all the activity happening on the retail side. I can only see this being complementary,” said Cherrie. “We’re going to have retail configurations, but I can tell you that our vending SKUs are going to be sold only to the vending trade. That’s going to be music to the ears of the guys in vending. They’re not going to be competing with big box stores.”
At present time, plans call for an 850-count selection of ball gum in five flavors, including: Original, Strawberry, Blue Raspberry, Watermelon and Grape. “The most exciting one is the Original Bazooka flavor, which is sort of the gold standard,” said Cherrie. “Another important thing here is not only a function of flavor, but also aesthetics. It’s a very appealing visual flavor range. And this gum is going to be very good consumer value because it’s a heavy piece of gum. The kid gets more gum for his quarter.”
Depending on how you look at it, Topps’ timing could not have been better or worse. According to industry experts, with Concord Confections’ market share in the bulk ball gum arena slipping slightly and consolidation occurring among the largest bulk vending operating companies, there very well may be room for another player. However, recent and dramatic increases in sugar prices have exerted significant pressure on candy manufacturers. With wholesale retail prices seeing double-digit increases in some confectionary categories, the pundits are predicting price increases in the bulk vending sector. Whether brand recognition will help or hinder the company during this period remains to be seen. And, while Bazooka will not offer a 1,080-count gumball in its initial launch, Cherrie leaves the possibility open.
“Our idea here isn’t to win on price. We will be competitive from a pricing standpoint, but we didn’t enter the vend business to be the low-priced competitor,” said Cherrie. “What we’re trying to do is build business. I’m not looking for them [operators] to make a 93% margin as opposed to 91%. I’m looking for them to do two times the number of turns – to sell twice as many gumballs. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here. So we’ll be competitively priced, but we’re not out to win on price. When you have a brand like Bazooka, you don’t want to win because of price. You want to win on your ability to build a brand and excitement that can help them significantly increase the number of turns.”With product due to start shipping in late spring in time for the gum-selling season of the summer months, Cherrie and other Topps officials have high hopes for the reinvigorated brand, particularly in the new formats. “I think we will be disappointed if all we do is double the business,” Cherrie said. “We’re hoping to see if we can take this thing to three, four or five times its current size. I think it can be done.”