Tomi Holt has been director of communications for Jelly Belly Candy Company since last year. She ran a boutique agency in the Bay Area specializing in food and health for two decades and also worked in advertising for Young & Rubicam and Glamour magazine.
Q: With a very high level of brand awareness among consumers already in place, how does Jelly Belly continue to build brand relationships with its consumers in today’s competitive candy marketplace?
A: Our position is that style and good taste are eternal. Delivering on the promise of a surprisingly authentic flavor of Jelly Belly is our primary mission. We receive thousands of suggestions for new flavors from consumers, whether through post, email and social media and we welcome them all. However it’s not only the enjoyment of the eating experience. We are in the business of putting smiles on the faces of our consumers. The memories of pleasurable times, the creativity in flavor innovation, the brilliant colors are all areas that inspire participation and celebration.
We also look for new ways for consumers to have fun with Jelly Belly beans. We offer public tours and develop new ideas to use our product. Currently the marketing department is running a cupcake decorating promotion, which we announced through the trade and blogosphere. Also, we are out in the marketplace with a mobile tour and a series of sponsorships. While we enjoy wonderful brand awareness, we are not content leaving it at that. We are still a small company, although we enjoy a large image. That means we leave no stone unturned. We actively reach out through the media, web, events, retail promotions and social media. By keeping the strategy squarely focused on what we do best, and having responsive media relations, we generate a good deal of buzz.
Q: Much like Kleenex has become synonymous for any brand of tissue, the Jelly Belly brand name has become synonymous with “Jelly Belly Beans” candy. How has PR/Marketing strategy adjusted to keep the Jelly Belly brand name from becoming “genericized?”
A: Our trademark attorneys just got a shiver down their backs with this question. We actively protect the brand name, even to the point of notifying media outlets when they have it wrong. Beyond that, a key PR strategy is to focus on innovation in flavor development. If you’re the first or only candy maker to figure out how to make an acai berry flavor, for example, then it’s an opportunity to position the brand as innovative and trend setting. We have a steady stream of new flavors that provides fodder for publicity.
Keeping the brand name at the forefront is also organic to everything we do. We print the Jelly Belly name on every bean–that’s about 15 billion beans – so consumers are assured they have an authentic Jelly Belly bean in hand. We use every avenue at our disposal to tell the story. We have produced a trade newsletter for more than two decades to share knowledge on quality candy making, point-of-purchase tips and retailing. For consumers our public tours are important environments for key messaging. When 700,000 visitors a year leave our facilities, they know it takes 7 to 21 days to make a Jelly Belly bean, a surprising fact to many.
Q: From a PR perspective, what factors are key drivers of consumer demand for Jelly Belly candy?
A: We hope it is love at first bite. When those of us who work for the company mention Jelly Belly, a common thing happens. People will smile and tell us what their favorite flavor is, and/or which one they don’t like. Sometimes they suggest a flavor they would like us to try, or one they wish we would ditch. We are dedicated to the largest variety of flavors in the world, and each is developed to deliver a unique taste. We play on the natural curiosity about “what will they think of next.”
Jelly Belly is not your average bag of beans. It is our mission to make the highest quality confection and maintain the highest quality standards in our business practices. That translates to stellar customer service and timely response to consumers. We believe every interaction is an opportunity to make a new fan, even if they start out being upset. We are charged with a simple philosophy: “if there’s an issue or a problem, don’t just fix the problem, but make it better than before the issue arose.”
Q: Jelly Belly has “hung its hat” on its palate pleasing variety of natural flavors. What is Jelly Belly’s approach to building brand loyalty in instances where consumers have not, or are not immediately able to sample the product?
A: The company is committed to active media outreach, responsiveness and high value media relations. From this office, we issue news on everything new, and not only Jelly Belly beans. Recently we launched a mellocreme candy called Peas & Carrots that brought us excellent coverage. At the very least, media want to try something new, whether they report on it or not each time.
The advent of tours opened whole new vistas for travel media outlets, which are excellent environments for telling our story in a full and interesting way. I also believe in collaborating with others who have a mutual interest and can carry our message further. That may take the form of building good relations with trade associations, working with PR teams assigned to trade shows, and supporting creative retailers with their own local media efforts. I agree with President Reagan when he said, “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Q: How did the connection between President Reagan and Jelly Belly come about? How did Jelly Belly maximize this stellar endorsement?
A: Our company began shipping mini jelly beans to Governor Reagan, around 1967 when he was in Sacramento. We learned from a colleague in the candy business that he was trying to give up pipe smoking and was eating the Jelly Belly beans we made. The company was very small then, and never attempted to seek an “endorsement” or to advertise the connection. Insiders in Sacramento knew about the Jelly Belly beans and the Governor sent a letter of thanks to the company saying he could hardly start a meeting without passing around the Jelly Belly beans.
It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s second attempt at the presidential race that the media noticed he was eating our Jelly Belly beans on the campaign trail. The San Jose Mercury News broke the story that those jelly beans came from a small Bay Area manufacturer, and the next thing Herm Rowland, our owner, knew was that Ronald Reagan won the election and was headed for his first inauguration. Suddenly the media wanted to know more about our company. The story went wildfire through the media with virtually every major outlet, including international media, reporting on the president and his affinity for Jelly Belly beans. The company made exclusive White House jars for the president to give as gifts.
While Herm Rowland agreed to comment on the news stories, the company did not advertise or promote the connection with the White House. The media coverage did more for the brand than any of those efforts would have done, and President Reagan’s personal charm and diplomacy were apparently extended through his gifts of Jelly Belly beans.
When I wrote my first press release for the company about three years into the Reagan presidency, I was told you can’t mention the president or the White House. That was an interesting challenge. The company’s primary goal was to be respectful of the Office of the President, which sounds quaint in today’s world. The secondary goal was for consumers to love Jelly Belly beans for their good taste, not because they were a novelty preferred by a famous person. Another quaint notion that has stood the test of time, is that we now make more than fifteen times the number of Jelly Belly beans that were consumed during the early years of the Reagan administration.
By the reelection campaign for his second term we commissioned a portrait of the president made from thousands of Jelly Belly beans and that portrait went on display at our tour center in California in 1989. Again we did not advertise it, but allowed word of mouth to take a natural course. Some years later we donated a similar Jelly Belly portrait to the Reagan Library where it hangs today.
When President Reagan passed away we were amazed to see average Americans spontaneously leaving bags of Jelly Belly beans at memorial sites. Several major news outlets called wanting to know how we intended to capitalize on this, and we were appalled. Very quickly we managed to get our message across that our respect for the person, his legacy, his family and his memory meant we would not be issuing a special package or promote our brand in this way. The decision not to claim an endorsement on the basis of the connection to the president allowed us to side step what could have been very negative and crass coverage in the media.
This year, some forty-five years later, we have placed the first advertisement honoring the Reagan Centennial Celebration and Reagan Foundation. The company sponsored the kick off to the Centennial year with the entry of a float in the 2011 Rose Parade, which was awarded the National Trophy by the Tournament of Roses. Throughout this Centennial year we expect to give away a half million Jelly Belly samples with information attached about the life of the president. If there’s a lesson for all of us in this, it’s that good taste and style are eternal.