A Canadian Candy Bar's Long Journey to America

Candy-cravers across America are claiming victory now that the U.S. is second home to a candy bar that, until July, could be found only in Canada.

After a six-year Internet campaign started by a 31-year-old candy connoisseur, the beloved Canadian candy bar Coffee Crisp has finally made it across the border.

In 2000, John Flaig, a Milwaukee software engineer, posted an online petition on his Web site, CoffeeCrisp.org, asking Nestlé to start selling the Coffee Crisp — a chocolate wafer bar with creamy coffee filling — in the U.S. Six years and thousands of supporting signatures later, Flaig can now find it in his state, and soon (very soon, he hopes), at his gas station.

Nestlé U.S.A., the American arm of the world's largest food company, Nestlé S.A., started selling Canada's No. 3 candy bar to select convenience stores across America in July.

"It's the first time I've seen that they've gotten a company to take an international product and market it domestically," said Cybele May, a food writer who runs Candy Blog.

It's a first for Nestlé, and Flaig's Web site was the catalyst, says Patricia Bowles, spokeswoman for Nestlé Confections & Snacks, a division of Nestlé USA.

"In 15 years we haven't seen this kind of consumer attention and one that has been so well organized," she said.

Sweet Sleuth

John Flaig grew up on Canadian candy. His parents would always return from visits to their hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, with sweets.

"It was always a treat when they would bring back different Canadian candies that you couldn't get here," Flaig said. "That kind of became a tradition."

When Flaig waxed nostalgic about his sweet spot for Coffee Crisps online, he found he was not alone.

In addition to the petition, CoffeeCrisp.org logs sightings of the candy, from the sandy beaches of Hawaii to the wilds of Mishawaka, Ind.

"I created this site as kind of a fun thing to do and it spiraled into a grassroots activist campaign, I guess, except that we weren't trying to get a company to stop doing something," Flaig said. "We were trying to get them to do something that was positive for us and for them."

The buzz generated in those first years caught the eyes of the Coffee Crisp resistance at Nestlé, who offered up corporate e-mail addresses to aid the campaign, Flaig said.

But apart from a test launch in the greater New York area in 2001, Nestlé seemed reluctant to give Americans the taste of a candy bar that delights so many Canadians.

Introduced in Canada in 1951, the Coffee Crisp is a very familiar candy to Canadians, says Stacey Brown, spokeswoman for Nestlé Canada. In May 2006, it fell behind Kit Kat and AERO for top sales in the country’s candy market.

"It comes down to people's tastes," Flaig said. "Some people at Nestlé told me Americans have a sweeter tooth than Canadians."

Stateside Coffee Crisp fans didn't care. They kept writing and e-mailing and calling relentlessly.

Target Marketing: If Nestlé Brings it, Will They Bite?

For a global corporation, moving a successful product from one country to another is not as easy as, say, loading up a truck with the stuff and driving across the border.

"You just don't say 'Oh people like it here, let's sell it there,'" said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Taking basically the same product that's been designed for one particular cultural group, social group, usually doesn't do well."

Factors that can influence an international marketing move include distribution and production, but above all, taste. There is such a thing as regional taste, and those pumpkin-flavored Kit Kats in Tokyo might not be considered the bee's knees in Tulsa, Okla.

"From time to time we do look in other countries to see what is selling there, especially those among the top 1, 2, 3 best-selling products in any given category," Bowles said. "And we look at those taste profiles to see whether they would match up, in this example, to a Nestlé USA consumer."

Nestlé USA has received requests from Americans looking for other Nestlé products — such as the exclusive-to-Australia Violet Crumble – but never to the degree as the calls for the Coffee Crisp, Bowles said.

The letters and calls from Coffee Crisp fanatics likely awakened Nestlé to the possible demand here in the States, Stanton said.

"Yes, we're answering the call for the consumers who made themselves heard," Bowles said. "But in putting it out there, we're now trying to find out whether the rest of America will bite."

It's a calculated risk, Stanton said. The chances of success for the Coffee Crisp are greater than if Nestlé introduced a product, say, from Japan, because of the similarities between the Canadian and U.S. markets.

"Look at how well the Canadian beers have done," Stanton said. "It's an example that it can be done."

How Do You Like Your Coffee?

When Nestlé USA decided to bring the Coffee Crisp south, it enlisted the help of the man who got the ball rolling. In March, Flaig received a series of e-mails from a California marketing company about the soft summer launch of the candy bar.

Flaig declined to give up his vast database of stateside Coffee Crisp lovers to marketers or Nestlé, citing privacy concerns, but he did offer Threshold Marketing tips on what to include in a stateside Coffee Crisp site.

The resulting Web site, Nestlé-coffeecrisp.com, lists the retailers, including Dollar Tree and Meijer, that are carrying the candy bar, and an 800 number in addition to online forms that help consumers request Coffee Crisps at their local shops.

And while the bars will continue to be produced in Canada, the packaging has been spruced up for an American audience. The French and the "nice light snack" tagline Canadians recognize has been replaced by a wrapper with Spanish writing boasting "wafers with coffee creme center." Americans also get the ad campaign "How do you like your coffee?" "Crisp" being the unspoken, but assumed answer.

The bar sells for 65 cents, versus the 99 cents Canadian suggested for retailers north of the 49th parallel.

Nestlé says it has done its job, and now it is the consumers' turn to show how much they really care about the candy bar. If the Coffee Crisp does well in this soft launch, the company will consider expanding its distribution channels, Bowles said.

"We're here not only to meet the tastes and preferences on the part of our consumer, but also to be able to maintain a viable business," Bowles said. "We need to determine now whether there is a substantial market for Coffee Crisp in the U.S., and this is a great way for us to take the temperatures of American consumers and to see what they would have us do based on their buying preferences."

With a bright yellow wrapper that seems to say, "Wake Up!" these candy bars have a shot at becoming a popular convenience-store mainstay, May said.

"Coffee Crisp fills a big niche," May said. "There are no other major-brand coffee candies on the racks."

Bowles agrees. "From all indications, this product is loved, has been loved and will be loved for the coming years."

So what's next for Flaig, now that his work in the Coffee Crisp campaign is complete?

"A lot of people have started saying we should do the same thing for AERO bars and Smarties, so who knows?" Flaig said. "We may get into that."

Both candies are made by, you guessed it, Nestlé.