How Nerds candy became cool again and made it to the Super Bowl

If you’re a child of the ’80s, you probably remember Nerds, the colorfully packaged novelty pebble-shaped candies with two separate flavors per box. This was far from your typical dessert: it wasn’t chocolaty, nor did it resemble other whimsical creations of the time, such as Pop Rocks. It had a nerdy vibe all its own.

Now, some four decades later, that vibe is back.

Nerds have once again become an unexpected star in the candy aisle. 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 will make its debut as a Super Bowl advertiser.

It’s an unlikely success story that echoes the rise of a select number of other suddenly hip old-school brands. He thinks 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 a trend phenomenon.

With Stanley, the transformation was driven in part by the brand’s introduction of colorful and often limited-edition models that soon became collectible. In the case of Nerds, owned by Ferrara, a Chicago-based candy company, growth was particularly linked to the launch of a spin-off 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.

Gummy Clusters have taken traditional Nerds, which are still widely available, in a completely new direction. As the name suggests, these are gummy sweets, but they are covered in Nerds, so they combine the gumminess of the former with the crunchiness of the latter.

A Nerds Gummy Cluster comes to life in a scene from a Super Bowl commercial promoting the popular candy.

Digitas Chicago

“It’s a cooler mouthfeel,” Bre Metcalf-Oshinsky, a New York-based marketing professional, said of the candy’s unique appeal. Apparently this alone was enough to overcome the challenge that Metcalf-Oshinsky says legacy brands typically face, namely “making sure the product still feels modern and desirable for today.”

Not that heritage brands don’t benefit from the nostalgia factor. They can appeal to consumers who remember products from long ago, as well as a new generation who embraces a kind of throwback chic.

Old-school candy has become a hot seller in recent years and is a key part of the $42.6 billion candy business. Iconic Candy, a New Jersey-based company that specializes in nostalgic favorites, recently told MarketWatch that its sales have been growing at an annual rate of between 20% and 40%. That company said it plans to revive at least two retro chewing gum brands: Bubble Jug and Ouch! Bubble Gum: This year.

As Ferrara mounts his new campaign for Nerds, built around the Super Bowl commercial produced by media agency Digitas, he aims to emphasize both the brand’s history and its recent reemergence.

The 30-second game day ad celebrates the Gummy Cluster by presenting it as a colorful and contemporary character, almost reminiscent of 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 surprisingly, Nerds debuted in 1983. To bring things back in the present day, the commercial ends with a cameo from singer, actress and dancer Addison Rae.

The idea, said Erica Melia, senior vice president of Digitas, is to take “people who have loved nerds for years and years” on a journey “into the present.”

Clearly, Ferrara executives are hoping to take the Nerds success story to the next level with the commercial and wider campaign. While the brand’s sales are impressive, Guidotti stressed that there is considerable room for growth, noting that even with its $500 million in annual sales, Nerds only has 16% household penetration, meaning that 84% of homes are Nerd-less. Some major candy brands have penetration of around 25%, Guidotti added, pointing to that figure as a benchmark for the brand to reach.

Some varieties of Nerd from the brand’s original heyday. The product was named candy of the year by a trade group in 1985.


In some ways, Nerds’ current success echoes the brand’s breakthrough in the 1980s. The candy was created by Sunmark, a now-defunct confectionery brand based in St. Louis, as part of a range of Willy Wonka-themed treats. “Novelty was our thing,” explained former Sunmark executive Bob Anderson, and Nerds was conceived as something of a silly surprise. As for the name, Anderson said the ’80s were all about nerd references: He thinks of “Revenge of the Nerds,” a 1984 film that spawned three sequels.

“It was just a common phrase,” he said.

The Nerds “just took off” with little publicity or promotion, Anderson recalled. In 1985 she was named candy of the year by the National Candy Wholesalers Association.

Eventually, the brand became part of Nestlé NESN,
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 ad spot on game day is $7 million, according to a recent report, and Ferrara’s team says the new campaign makes money for all ‘company total 10 million dollars.

Some marketers wonder if Nerds-mania has already peaked.

“At this point of popularity, you’re reaching the point of diminishing returns,” said Thomas Donohoe, author of “The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook.”

However, a nerd can always aspire to greater glory. Or at least that’s what the Nerds team hopes.

“We haven’t found the upper limit for this business yet,” Guidotti said.

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