Some hard, candy-coated truths about American culture

If you polled a hundred people and asked each one to say something about Forrest Mars Sr., most would probably give you a blank stare.

Although he spent decades running a highly successful company, Mr. Mars avoided the media spotlight. After his death last week at the age of 95, some obituaries described the Mars family as "ultra-secretive."

Here's my advice to his sons, Forrest Jr. and John: Stay the course. Your company doesn't need flamboyant, outspoken executives in the mold of Ted Turner or Lee Iaccoca.

Product is more important than personalities, and Mars candy has become an essential ingredient of our national pop culture.

I can sense many readers nodding at this point and thinking, "That's why the name sounded familiar!"

Yes, Forrest Mars was the man responsible for all those Snickers bars, Milky Ways, and Three Musketeers we've happily consumed during the past five decades.

One of the unsung achievements of 20th-century America is the emergence of a thriving confection industry.

For most of the century, candy was a luxury item. But now access to affordable sweets is taken for granted, and snacking between meals has become a routine part of the workday.

This fact was made clear to me a few months ago on a visit to my local mail and copy center, when I noticed a shallow wooden box on the counter. It was neatly stocked with familiar treats made by Mars and Hershey. Why, I asked, had this tasty option been added? "The customers wanted it," was the reply. And they are constantly nibbling away the inventory.

One of the most popular items in that wooden box is M&Ms, a product that will likely carry the Mars name into the distant future. Introduced in 1940, M&Ms offer candy fans something special: consumption flexibility.

Most people don't relish the idea of taking two bites from a Milky Way and putting it away for later. But with M&Ms, I have the choice of finishing a 1.69-ounce packet in five minutes or stretching it out for three days.

"Melts in your mouth, not in your hand" may also be the most effective commercial slogan in advertising history. It's catchy, memorable, and (most importantly, from a business point of view) most Americans can tell you instantly what product it's associated with.

Forrest Mars probably understood that candy is a cultural lubricant, something that helps the social machinery of modern life move more smoothly.

And, like motor oil, it's not a product that needs much tweaking. Simply making sure it's always available to loyal customers is probably the best marketing strategy.

I'm not hesitant about discussing my candy habits, except when it comes to estimating how many Snickers, Milky Ways, and M&Ms have passed over my palate. On that question I, too, prefer to remain ultra-secretive.

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