If you’re a child of the ’80s, you likely remember Nerds, the pebble-shaped novelty candy that came colorfully packaged with two separate flavors per box. This was far from your typical sweet: It wasn’t chocolatey, nor was it quite like other oddball creations of the era, such as Pop Rocks. It had a nerdish vibe all its own.
Now, some four decades later, that vibe is back.
Nerds has become an unexpected star of the candy aisle once again. According to the people who run the brand, annual sales have skyrocketed from $50 million to $500 million in recent years. And, on Sunday, Nerds is making its debut as a Super Bowl advertiser.
It’s an unlikely success story that echoes the rise of a select number of other suddenly hot old-school brands. Think of Nerds as the candy equivalent of, say, the Stanley water bottle. Stanley has been around since 1913, but its drink containers have only recently become buzzworthy sensations.
With Stanley, the transformation has been driven in part by the brand’s introduction of colorful and often limited-edition models that soon became collectible. With Nerds, which is owned by Ferrara, a Chicago-based candy company, the growth has been particularly tied to the launch of a spinoff candy: Nerds Gummy Clusters.
“It was absolutely like a runaway train,” Ferrara’s chief marketing officer, Greg Guidotti, told MarketWatch of the response to the product, which was introduced in 2020.
The Gummy Clusters took traditional Nerds, which are still widely available, in an entirely new direction. As the name implies, these are gummy candies, but they’re coated in Nerds, so they combine the chewiness of the former with the crunchiness of the latter.
“It’s a more interesting mouthfeel,” said Bre Metcalf-Oshinsky, a New York–based marketing professional, of the candy’s unique appeal. That alone was seemingly enough to overcome the challenge that Metcalf-Oshinsky said legacy brands typically face — namely, “making sure the product still feels modern and desirable for the present day.”
Not that legacy brands don’t benefit from the nostalgia factor. They can appeal to consumers who remember the products from long ago as well as to a new generation that embraces a kind of yesteryear chic.
Old-school candies have become hot sellers in recent years and are a key part of the $42.6 billion confectionary business. Iconic Candy, a New Jersey–based company that specializes in nostalgic favorites, recently told MarketWatch that its sales have been increasing at an annual rate of 20% to 40%. That company said it plans to relaunch at least two retro gum brands — Bubble Jug and Ouch! Bubble Gum — this year.
As Ferrara mounts its new campaign for Nerds, which is built around the Super Bowl spot produced by the Digitas media agency, it’s aiming to emphasize both the brand’s history and its recent re-emergence.
The 30-second game-day ad celebrates the Gummy Cluster by featuring it as a colorful contemporary character, almost reminiscent of the M&M’s characters. In this case, the character is dancing to a very ’80s tune — Irene Cara’s “Flashdance … What a Feeling” from the 1983 film “Flashdance.” Not so incidentally, Nerds debuted in 1983. To bring things back to the present day, the ad concludes with a cameo appearance by the singer, actress and dancer Addison Rae.
The whole idea, said Erica Melia, a Digitas senior vice president, is to bring “people who have loved Nerds for years and years” on a journey “into the now.”
Clearly, Ferrara execs are hoping to take the Nerds success story to the next level with the commercial and with the broader campaign. While the brand’s sales are impressive, Guidotti emphasized that there’s considerable room to grow, noting that even with its $500 million in annual sales, Nerds has a household penetration of only 16% — meaning 84% of homes are Nerds-less. Some major candy brands have around 25% penetration, Guidotti added, pointing to that figure as a benchmark for the brand to reach.
In some ways, the current success of Nerds echoes the brand’s breakthrough days in the ’80s. The candy was created by Sunmark, a now-defunct St. Louis–based confectionary brand, as part of a lineup of Willy Wonka–themed treats. “Novelty was kind of our thing,” former Sunmark executive Bob Anderson explained, and Nerds was conceived as something of a goofball treat. As for the name, Anderson said the ’80s were all about nerd references — think “Revenge of the Nerds,” a 1984 film that spawned three sequels.
“It was just a common phrase,” he said.
Nerds “just took off” with little advertising or promotion, Anderson recalled. In 1985, it was named candy of the year by the National Candy Wholesalers Association.
Eventually, the brand became part of Nestlé
and was acquired by Ferrara in 2018. Ferrara itself had been acquired by Ferrero, an Italian multinational whose brands include Kinder, Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, in 2017.
Now, Ferrara is making a big bet on Nerds: The average cost of a 30-second game-day ad is $7 million, according to a recent report, and the Ferrara team says the new campaign is running the company $10 million overall.
Some marketing pros wonder if Nerds mania has already peaked.
“At this point of popularity, you’re hitting the point of diminishing returns,” said Thomas Donohoe, author of “The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook.”
Still, a nerd can always aim for greater glory. Or so the Nerds team hopes.
“We’ve not found the ceiling on this business yet,” said Guidotti.