UNREAL Candy: Taking the Junk out of Junk Food

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Unconventionals // Season 2 • Episode 4

The folk behind UNREAL Candy share their vision for redefining junk food

Sometimes all it takes is a simple unconventional question to change everything...

Our friends at Warby Parker asked, "Why do eyeglasses have to cost $700?"

Dollar Shave Club wondered "Why do we pay top dollar for unnecessary shaving technology?"

Which brings us to Unreal Candy, which was founded on a question we've all thought about at one time or another: "Why does all the food we love the most have to be so bad for us?" Join us for an in-depth interview with Unreal Candy founders Michael and Nicky Bronner as we discuss

  • Their quest around the globe to find chefs to "Unjunk the world"
  • The intiative to question the standards of candy shelf life
  • How celebrities such as Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Brady all got involved in the cause

Stream the latest episode of The Unconventionals with the folks who set out to change the way we think of "junk food"  in its entirety... And be sure to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.        

transcript
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Javil:
Next on PJA Radio’s The Unconventionals.

Michael:
The company was founded on a question that Nicky asked and the question was, and it came with anger, but his question was why is it that all the food we love the most has to be so bad for us?

Mike:
Many of the companies we've featured on The Unconventionals have taken on categories that are ripe for reinvention. They've started by asking basic questions about how business is done. Why do eyeglasses have to cost $700, in the case of Warby Parker or Dollar Shave Club asking why do we pay so much for shave technology that we don’t need?


There are a lot of companies asking those questions about the food industry right now. Over the next three shows we’ll take a look at a farm, a burger chain and a candy company all who took a look at conventional wisdom and said we're going to do it the other way.


Today we're talking to UNREAL Candy. A company with a mission to unjunk the world, as they say, starting with taking a lot of the crap out of candy we eat every day. I spoke with founders Michael Bronner and his remarkably poised 17-year-old son Nicky at UNREAL’s Boston headquarters. UNREAL was Nicky’s idea and Nicky had to good fortune to have a father who had the resources and business expertise, not to mention the interest, to help bring the idea alive.


Halloween is Christmas for candy makers, by far their biggest holiday for sales. The National Confectioner’s Association says we’ll buy more than six hundred million pounds of candy this Halloween, so it's not surprise that the argument that led to UNREAL candy happened on Halloween night.

Nicky:
This all began in seventh grade after Halloween. I went out trick or treating with my friends, came home with my bags of candy, woke up the next morning and half of it was hone. I knew it was Dad who had taken all the candy, so I got really angry at him. We had a small fight.

Mike:
Of course.

Nicky:
Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. I asked my Dad why did you take away my candy. He says, “Nicky, you know why I take away your candy. It's bad for you.” I set out to prove my Dad wrong. I took my favorite candies. I started with my favorite peanut butter cups. I thought peanut butter cups. Peanut butter and chocolate …

Mike:
How bad can it be right?

Nicky:
How bad could it possibly be? Okay, I get it, there could be some sugar, but it's really two ingredients. Apparently, I was really wrong and there's a lot more in there than what I thought there was in the beginning artificial sugars, preservatives in all my favorite candies. Stuff I didn’t want to be eating, even GMO’s which I just think are nasty. I had to go to my Dad and I think for the first time in his life actually he was right or at least the first time I cared to admit that he was right.

Michael:
Thank you Nicky.

Nicky:
Of course, credit where credit is due.

Michael:
Yeah, I’ll take it.

Mike:
You had half your candy thrown out. You like candy, so is that what started the search for something difficult?

Nicky:
Right, it really it started with the peanut butter cup and it's like peanut butter and chocolate. Why can't it just be that way? Obviously you can talk to the most novice of chef’s and they’ll say you can't just throw peanut butter on chocolate and then leave it in the store for nine months. You can do something pretty close to that. You don’t have to fill it with all this junk and these artificials and just stuff that you really don’t want to be eating. You can make it pretty real.

Michael:
With a lot less sugar which is what we really set out to prove.

Mike:
That kind of incident, that's happening all the time. There’s a million conversations happening every day about couldn’t there be a different kind of candy, a better kind of candy? Very few of those end up as businesses. Could you take me through a little? What was the path from that early insight which is candy shouldn’t have so much junk in them it sounds like to we're going to make a business out of it?

Nicky:
Right, we had this whole category, a $31 billion category which is one of my favorites and just filled with junk. I know there's a bit of a selfish company because I really would like to be able to eat all my candy on Halloween. It started with the question of why does my candy have to be this way and then the realization that it doesn’t have to be this way. Candy’s been changing over the years farther away from the real ingredients just to make it easier to produce, cheaper, have it last longer. It really can be made the right way still.

Michael:
I think what the goal was to not just create a better candy for Nicky to be able to eat, but to really create change out there. Not by preaching that the massive amounts of sugar and the hydrogenated fats and the artificial colors and flavors they don’t need to be there. You can say that all day long, but unless you can actually prove it, have people taste.


The thing that Nicky was about was the taste which was really fascinating. He said let's go see if we can make it so that it number one tastes as good, if not better. Then, number two have a lot less sugar and number three had nothing artificial in it. That was really the start of the business because he, with the help of his brother, started looking for chef’s and scientists that could help.

Mike:
Of course, you can find candy that's delicious and not loaded up with chemicals. I can walk into Harvard Square and there's no shortage of $4 chocolate bars and artisan truffles, but this is niche, premium stuff. Michael and Nicky were aiming at something very different with UNREAL. They wanted to give a new option to your average candy buyer, like me.


The first time I heard of UNREAL Candy was when I bought some of their peanut butter cups at Walgreen’s. They were right next to the big candy brands and they were at about the same price point. One look at the label and it was obvious this wasn’t your typical candy. It wasn’t at all what I would expect at a Walgreen’s. UNREAL was thinking big and broad appeal Walgreen’s and Target, Matt Damon and Tom Brady pick.

Michael:
The reason that Nicky wanted to start this company, and he jokes about wanting to eat more candy, but it really was this mission. The mission that was stated was to unjunk the world. Now, there’s fun in that and so we never believe that we ourselves could unjunk the world. We did see ourselves as a tiny, tiny pebble that you could throw into the pond. What we wanted to measure was not the size of the pebble, but the outer edge of the ripple that we could create.


When we then looked at how could we create the biggest ripple the early thinking was let's show up in the places where most of the candy is sold today so that we can give the heaviest candy buyers a new option, a new alternative that they didn’t have. That they would then discover wow this can taste as good. This tastes better than these candies I've been eating. My gosh it's got a lot less sugar. It’s got none of the junk that's in there. How can that be? It's not that much more expensive. It’s about the same price.


That was the early disruptive thinking and that's why we ended up in Walgreen’s. What I think the naivety which is the greatest asset of the company is the naivety, was how would we just show up in an eight thousand store chain, a nine thousand store chain and actually have everybody go let me go for that. We’ve been learning our way through this. We’ve been refining our thinking about distribution, not in terms of where we want to be someday, but where we should be today and how we grow out from there.

Mike:
Refining thoughts and distribution means, I think not just going big and mainstream, but also looking at retailers, stores like the Whole Foods of the world, where UNREAL is likely to find consumers who are already seeking out alternatives. Michael and Nicky acknowledge that culture change is hard and are beginning to focus on building a base of fans that can grow the company.


[music 00:09:02 - 00:09:13]


When we come back we’ll continue our discussion with Nicky and Michael Bronner of UNREAL Candy. We’ll talk about the star power that rallied behind the company. A-listers like Tom Brady, Gisele Bundchen, Leonardo DiCaprio and John Legend who you're hearing right now performing a song for the recent online campaign, The Easter Bunny Apology Tour.


[music 00:09:37 - 00:10:04]

Javil:
You're listening to PJA Radio’s The Unconventionals. If you'd like to learn more about the show or join in on the conversation check out our Facebook page Facebook.com/Unconventionals Radio. Our academic sponsor for The Unconventionals is the Center on Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School which turns the research of academia’s foremost thinkers on branding into practical tools and insight for real world application. For more information visit Global Brands.org.

Jillian:
Push bunny, dig deep. You're going to go on this apology tour for all that other candy you gave out. You’re going to need endurance. You're going to need determination. You're going to need strength. Really? God, bunny I thought you'd be in such better shape than this with all the hopping that you do.

Mike:
Welcome back to The Unconventionals. I'm Mike O’Toole. That was celebrity trainer and wellness expert Jillian Michaels. Jillian is one of many stars that have backed UNREAL Candy and that was a clip from the company’s wildly successful online campaign The Easter Bunny Apology Tour. We’ll talk more about that in just a minute.


We've learned that UNREAL is a company with a big mission to unjunk the world and after talking with Michael and Nicky Bronner you quickly realize that UNREAL thinks big about everything. Nothing exemplifies this more than the A- list celebrities that the company has recruited to tell the story. As we get back into the conversation I wanted to find out how some of these connections happened.

Michael:
With the mission of the company being to unjunk the world and being something as big and crazy as that how do you amplify your message? There's no question people like Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen and Leonardo DiCaprio and Jillian Michaels and Matt Damon. They're involvement with the company, John Legend, really allows us to amplify. The reason that they're involved is because of the mission. It's as simple as that.


Now, we're not selling toothbrushes. They love the product too. They have kids or nieces and nephews. They get that there's this inherent conflict all the time. They’re going to eat candy, but my God, now I can actually give them something I don’t have to feel terrible about. It's been a lot of fun.


This past Easter we launched something called The Easter Bunny Apology Tour where the Easter Bunny woke up and went oh my God. What have I been doing all these years? I'm giving out candy and I didn’t realize that it was loaded with so much sugar and chemicals. Then, Tom Brady takes the bunny out to try cheer him up and plays football with him hilarious videos.

Mike:
It's a great video, yeah.

Michael:


[00:13:41]
Yeah, DiCaprio takes him for a walk. Jillian Michaels works out the bunny to get him ready for his tour. John Legend sings him the “Junk Food Blues”. It is just one thing after the other. We’re trying to have fun, that's the other thing. This is candy. We can't take ourselves too seriously; we have to dance on the edge. With the brand that we are setting out to build is one that will be long lasting and will make everybody smile not just say it's a healthy product. Nobody eats candy a smile on their face.

Mike:
Got to have it. Because of that, yeah.


UNREAL is a marketers dream. They’ve got a great mission and they sell candy. They've been smart enough and contrarian enough in how they market to enlist their consumers in spreading the word. The industry term for this is earned media which means content that is fun or valuable enough to be worth sharing.


Sorrybunny.com, note that the UNREAL brand is not the star, earned more than two hundred million impressions you'd have to buy a lot of adds to have the same impact. The company got a lot of attention and I wondered whether if some of it was from the candy companies they were challenging. In a way, not explicitly, but you're taking a punch in the nose at some of the big candy companies out there. You're challenging them, challenging they run the category. Do you get any response from them?

Michael:
I think we also need to be respectful of who they are and what they do and how they do it because they're doing their best. They've got financial goals to meet, etc, so I think we need to be careful not to actually be punching at them. I think they've been, my guess is they're looking to watch and learn from this experience. Learn from our mistakes and learn from what does the consumer want? There hasn’t been any open fight, no.

Mike:
Yeah.

Michael:
We're too small. They’ve got other things to deal with.

Mike:
Right, some people have been watching. When I was doing some online research for this interview an article on the company, one that mentioned UNREAL Peanut Butter Cups, drew some long, detailed comments from a guy named Brad Reese. He clearly wasn’t a fan of the company and I wondered why, so I looked him up. He was nice enough to make himself available for a quick call and I caught him on his cell phone.

Brad:
You can't make a peanut butter cup and make it taste like a Reese’s. Do the Reese’s today taste like they did fifty years ago when my family had it? No because they’ve always been good, but they were a lot, believe me I consider them to be a lot better years ago.

Mike:
Brad Reese is the grandson to H. B. Reese who was the creator of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. No wonder he's paying such close attention. Just to be clear, Brad is not officially connected to the Hershey Company who currently owns the Reese’s brand. He is understandable a huge fan of Rees’s Peanut Butter Cups and is protective of their legacy. He doesn’t like anyone who questions or challenges that legacy. I found it interesting that Brad believes his grandfather’s recipe was better. It was creamier. It tasted better before the food scientists got a hold of it.

Brad:
Hershey’s couldn’t duplicate and that's why they bought Reese’s. I think what's happened is your food technologists, these guys, they become the head of new product development. They do these focus groups and so forth and so on. They're just all looking to see how much can we make running this, but look at UNREAL brands, fourteen percent less product for the same price. If you don’t compare the product, the UNREAL peanut butter to a Reese’s product you would not know that you're buying less product.


I understand their marketing angle at the time unjunked and they say we never claim that it's healthier. You don’t have to claim that it's healthier. All you have to do is disparage that we don’t use any artificial ingredients, blah, blah, blah that are whatever. Yeah, I call it out when I see it. Is Hershey doing everything right by the consumer? Heck no, but I believe that you should be called out when I see it.

Mike:
Brad’s main beef with UNREAL is that he takes issue with what he's sees as the company’s claim at making healthier candy. While UNREAL does do product comparisons on the labels, how their peanut butter cups compare with the leader in terms of calories, sugar, fiber, etc, I couldn’t find the company making health claims. I asked Nicky and Michael about it.

Nicky:
We're not healthy. We're still candy. As a company we’d prefer if you're hungry you’d grab and apple or eat a salad or have a good meal. We all have urges to eat candy and when you do eat candy it's just there was nothing there.

Michael:
Yeah, I think that this is the $30 billion category as Nicky said. We are not able to get people to stop eating candy, but as Nicky said, if you're going to eat it and people are, parents are going to give it their kids. Let's give them a better choice. That's the way we think about it having a better choice and whatever you eat should be made from one hundred percent real food ingredients. It should be as low as you can have it be in sugar. Still not as good as the unprocessed apple that Nicky talked about ever.

Mike:
You guys have said somewhere food should have a shelf life; candy should have a shelf life. I think we're probably all trained to think differently like the stuff just lasts forever. Could you talk about that a little bit, because in some ways it seems like yeah a long shelf life that's awesome? Why not, right?

Michael:
Yeah, the question that you have to ask of course is what does it take for it to have a long shelf life and what's the effect on me of that? By taking out the preservatives it's just another chemical that shouldn’t be in our food system. Even the bright colors, we could have our colors be even brighter than we have, but you would have to use titanium dioxide underneath it. People would look at that and think its only titanium dioxide. It's not something, again, that you really want to be ingesting or you want to be giving to your kids. We had that. We pulled that off. Nobody probably would've cared except for us knowing that you didn’t need it.


Yeah, this is real food. Everything in here is each ingredient is purposefully chosen. I should also add, as I think and Nicky I know this matters to you, that we responsibly source the key ingredients. If you talk about palm oil which is in these candies the destruction of the rain forest is for this palm oil. We go to a farm. It’s an organic farm. They do planting only on second and third generation growth. For every hectare that is cut down for us they replant three.


It's just a different way of thinking about. We can take that to dairy. Our dairy comes from grass fed cows with no added hormones, no antibiotics administered. The cacao beans are all traceable beans. There's a long list of how we selected every ingredient so we would do not harm and we could support communities in the right way.

Mike:
To be clear, UNREAL is challenging the status quo. They're doing it respectfully and with a healthy dose of humility given to their tiny place in a huge market. The challenge comes in that founding question. Why does there have to be so much junk in candy? It's a question, once you hear it that stays with you. Michael and Nicky asked a lot of other questions. Why does mass market candy have artificial dyes that are banned in many other countries? Why do they have GMO’s? Why should candy have a six month shelf life? Why do chocolate bars contain a whole lot less chocolate than they used to? Sometimes it's the simplest questions. The ones that people haven’t thought to ask that introduce the most powerful change.

Michael:
The company was founded on a question that Nicky asked and the question was, and it came with anger, but he was question why is that all the food we love the most as to be so bad for us? I say it's a question that any kid could’ve asked. It happened to be my son and I wanted to support him to see if he could find a better way.


I think the culture shift we want is for that question to be asked by everybody. I think today most people are relatively unconscious because we accept. As Nicky says when was the last time you look at the back of a candy bar when you look at a candy wrapper? You've been eating it since you were three. Why the heck would you start looking now? If we could ask this question why then the shift always comes after that. That's our, I think, the culture change we want.


I think the other part of that is just the expectation that it can be different and that it should be different and that my health matters. Part of it is my responsibility. Yes, what I choose, but honestly part of it is the company’s responsibility to do the right thing. To recognize that what their consumers are eating affects their health forever. Let’s make better ingredient choices even if it means we've got to charge more. It's, in the long run, much cheaper for the consumer if they pay another fifteen or twenty cents more on a bar, but those companies have all changed the ingredients because they're not going to pay the price with their health.

Mike:
Right. The company was inspired by that Halloween argument four years ago and it launched its first product two years ago. as we've said UNREAL started big and opened to a lot of fanfare, but for a company with a mission of changing culture it isn't just about a successful launch. I asked Michael and Nicky how they would define success moving forward.

Nicky:
I'd say our biggest success as a mission based company would be when we have our larger competitors to realize people what this. You can make this and maybe we should start changing and taking out some of the junk in our products too. That's our success.

Michael:
Yeah, I would agree a hundred percent with Nicky. I think the vision five years from now is that we've created a brand that people love and they want to follow because they say whenever I see UNREAL I know it's going to taste even better. I know it's going to be made with only real stuff without any junk, with less sugar, with responsibly sourced ingredients. I'm going to be able to find it where I like to shop. It's going to be affordable. If we're able to do that then Nicky’s right and we will have built enough penetration and demand that other companies will say this is a great opportunity for us. It's not that we want to be the only candy brand. We're hoping that fifty percent of that candy has been replaced even by the existing companies with better choices.

Mike:
Next time on The Unconventionals we’ll continue with our focus on disruptive models in the food industry with Higher Ground Farms, a fifty-five thousand square foot, rooftop farm that is bringing urban agriculture to Boston Seaport District.

Javil:
The Unconventionals is written and produced by Mike O’Toole with Reid Mangan. Post production and technical production by Reid Magan with Emmanuel [Ording 00:25:39]. Promotions, distribution and social strategy by Greg Straface and Graham Spectre. Our creative director is Aaron DaSilva. Our executive producer is Phil Johnson for PJA Advertising and Marketing. I'm [Javil Ahi 00:25:52]. To hear more episodes of The Unconventionals visit PJA Radio.com.

Mike:
This is PJA Radio.