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Medium Is the Message : Publicist Discovers Promotional Pull of Taffy

Times Staff Writer

Don Lowe used to hand out business cards, but now the president of Sir Speedy Printing Centers passes out something that his clients tuck into their mouths instead of their pockets.

Taffy.

Not just any taffy, but saltwater taffy molded around his Newport Beach printing company’s logo. Nearly two years ago, the firm’s Santa Ana store began handing out the candy as a gag. Today, nearly half of the company’s 530 franchise stores routinely distribute the taffy to customers and prospective clients. Explains Lowe, “If you can get someone to take a moment to look at your company’s name, you’ve done your job.”

Sir Speedy now buys nearly $50,000 worth of the chewy sweets annually.

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The crew behind the chew is Tasteful Promotions, a division of Santa Ana-based Maurice-Woodard Inc., a custom packager of candy and confections. Three-year-old Tasteful Promotions has splashed many a corporate logo across the gourmet taffy it has packaged and distributed for such clients as NBC, PSA, ARCO, TRW, Pepsico, Marriott, Radisson Hotels, Hotel del Coronado, Kampgrounds of America, Pacific Bell, Kawasaki, Bullock’s and dozens of others.

“People always see company names on ashtrays, pencils and memo pads,” says Don Maurice, president of Tasteful Promotions, “but how often do they see it on a piece of candy?” The taffy is made to order by a candy maker in the Seattle area. The corporate logos are not stamped onto the taffy but, through a complex process, are molded through each piece.

With the notion only a few years old, the company sold less than $200,000 of the sweet stuff last year. But based on a flood of incoming orders, Maurice says he expects to sell $500,000 worth this year and more than $1 million worth next year. “We may be the Cabbage Patch dolls of candy,” he said.

Indeed, some customers are stuck on the taffy.

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David Riddle, sales manager for Marriott Corp. in Los Angeles, said the giant hotel chain hands out candy with the Marriott logo at national trade shows. The candy is packaged in jars embossed with the Marriott label so that when the candy is gone, the name remains. “It has probably sweetened up a lot of our clients,” Riddle said.

And Michael Osborne, promotions director for the “L.A.'s the Place” campaign, said taffy bearing the campaign’s slogan is one of the hottest selling items at the airport’s gift shops. “We ordered $3,000 worth of the taffy and sold out in a month,” he said. Among the biggest taffy buyers are foreigners who take it home as a novelty. But equally solid customers are certain Los Angeles residents “who like to send it to their friends or relatives who are always putting down L.A.,” Osborne said.

Before Tasteful Promotions was placing corporate logos on candy, it was selling lollipops. That was in 1981, when the company--which Maurice co-owns with Dana Point elementary school teacher Judy Woodard--got off the ground. Back then, the sole product was multiflavored suckers with words such as STRESS printed on them. “We marketed it as a way to lick stress,” Maurice mused.

A few years later, a buyer at the UC Irvine gift shop asked Maurice if the university logo could be printed on a piece of taffy. Maurice checked around with a number of taffy makers and found one company that said it could do the job. It didn’t take long for Maurice to figure out that the potential market for personalized candy is enormous.

At some Radisson Hotels, for example, instead of mints on their pillows, guests now find taffy bearing the Radisson trademark. And when NBC was hyping its current television season, it ordered specialty taffy bearing its familiar slogan, “Let’s All Be There.”

“Companies are always looking for ways to advertise,” Maurice said, “and who do you know that doesn’t like candy?”

Well, there are some. The American Dental Assn., for one. Maurice approached the association with a plan for sugarless taffy that would say FLOSS or BRUSH on it, but officials there turned him down, citing the bad pull taffy can have on fillings.

Soon the company will investigate other markets, ranging from weddings to bar mitzvahs. And it recently began distributing the candy to hospital gift shops with sayings like “Get Well” and “It’s a Boy.”

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The personalized candy comes in 27 flavors, ranging from amaretto to coconut. It must be ordered in 100-pound increments--totaling 7,200 pieces of taffy--and costs $5.49 a pound. The individual pieces of taffy can fit two lines of words totaling eight letters per line.

Because of the small size and the flexible nature of taffy, no two pieces of personalized candy look exactly alike, and in some cases the printing can be hard to read. And Sir Speedy’s Lowe points out that a crop of bad candy could result in product liability for the company that passes it out, “but in our opinion that’s a very small risk.”

The biggest problem that Maurice reports is how quickly the taffy disappears.

“Sometimes we’ll leave samples with secretaries and by the time the marketing manager gets in, the taffy’s gone.”


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