Just as Willy Wonka created such paradoxical sweets as Hot Ice Creams for Cold Days and Square Sweets That Look Round, so too is the confectionery space faced with the task of keeping sweet things relevant in a world increasingly health-conscious and guilt-ridden. Traditional confectionery ingredients are falling out of fashion; sugar is increasingly passé, gelatin frowned upon, and artificial colours and flavours deeply undesirable. How are brands managing to maintain and dial-up the childish whimsy associated with fictional confectionery titans like Willy Wonka without falling back on traditional codes at odds with modern consumer desires? And how are they re-imagining ways of presenting unfashionable ingredients to the health-conscious?

From left to right: Conscious Raw Chocolate and Ombar Oat Milk Chocolate

Innovative Sweetness

The Covid-19 pandemic created a whole new population of health-conscious consumers, and we see that reflected in buying habits. Research by Innova revealed that 54% of global consumers have spent time educating themselves on ingredients that could help boost their immunity in the wake of Covid-19. Some confectionery brands speaking to these concerns include UK-based brand Conscious, who offer a raw chocolate bar with maca; a hormone-balancing root powder, and spirulina; an algae superfood, all wrapped in fully compostable packaging. The brand describes the bar as nutritionally ‘akin to your morning smoothie’; coding the product as a confectionery experience with a whole foods benefit. Consumers no longer have to compromise on undesirable ingredients when it comes to chocolate: vegan brand Ombar pride themselves as being raw, organic, vegan, palm oil free, and containing no refined sugar. Both Conscious and Ombar use illustrations on pack that have a hand-crafted feel, and appeal both to children and adults looking for a well-informed, health conscious but whimsical choice, coding the chocolate not just as ‘guilt-free’, but as actually beneficial to your health.

Nineties Nostalgia

Other brands blending the increase in health-consciousness post-Pandemic with codes borrowed from confectionery include vitamin brand Nourished, whose gummy ‘stacks’ come personally tailored to your health needs. The snacks themselves, while not strictly confectionery, have an aesthetic (multi-coloured, geometrically shaped, coated with sugar crystals) that codes them as part of the wider trend for nineties nostalgia within the space (think Kylie Jenner endorsing Nerds Gummy Clusters). This reflects the buying habits of millennials who were teenagers in the nineties; Sour Patch Kids, Skittles and Nerds all rely on nineties colour palettes, coding themselves as products cheekily and purposefully ignorant of the health concerns of the 2020s. As brands that provide the antidote to boring good sense, Skittles recently released a 30-minute-long apology video, streamed on Twitch, in which a suited man personally apologised to every consumer who had lodged a complaint about the notorious flavour switch from Lime to Green Apple in 2013, ridiculing corporate apologies and appealing to GenZ all in one go. Sour Patch Kids’ demonstrated fluency with platforms like TikTok, where they have 1.4 million followers, further solidifies their status as a platform recycling nineties nostalgia and mischief to the younger generation.

From left to right: Skittles utilising sarcastic GenZ humour in their IG posts, and Sour Patch Kids adding their two cents to the green flavour controversy, coding a universe in which brands have playful consciousness, not just with customers, but with each other

 Subcultural Influences

No-nonsense health-conscious consumers of sweets and joyful, mischievous confectionery connoisseurs meet halfway on one topic at least: CBD. As a recently legalised ingredient in the UK, both health food brands and more traditional confectioners are utilising the cannabis derivative to appeal to customers. Themptation creates organic hemp products, including chocolate CBD truffles, and raw, vegan, turmeric-infused (and immunity-boosting) CBD chocolate, using the codes of health-conscious confectionery to align themselves with the wave of confectioners selling not only guilt-free chocolate experiences, but sweet treats that enhance your health. On the flip side, brands like Sunday Scaries create CBD gummies with Vitamins B12 and D3 and utilise the aesthetics of weed subcultures of the nineties and early noughties to code themselves as products that not only provide a sweet experience, but de-stress the consumer.

From left to right: Hemp product company Themptation with their raw CBD chocolate offering, and Sunday Scaries’ ‘Vegan AF’ CBD gummies

3 key takeouts for brands:

  1. Appeal to the new post-Covid population of health-conscious, ingredient-savvy consumers: include ingredients with widely understood health benefits, especially those relating to immunity.
  2. Remember that the population of parents currently buying confectionery for their younger kids grew up in the nineties. Appeal to their sense of nostalgia with retro-inspired visuals and stay relevant to their children by engaging humorously on platforms like Twitch and TikTok.
  3. Don’t shy away from blending the above: utilise ingredients like CBD, and you satisfy both the health-conscious and the millennial.

Freya Ward-Lowery, Semiotician 

Sweet Semiotics: On Retaining Wonder & Whimsy in Confectionery