While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed some consumer packaged goods categories into overdrive — including comforting foods such as chocolate — data show the gum segment was not among them.

Lockdowns of all but essential businesses in March 2020 kept consumers away from schools, offices and other meeting places. Face masks designed to contain the coronavirus’ spread also reduced the need for consumers to freshen their breath, at least for other people’s sake. (A May 2020 Hershey campaign pointed to the phenomenon of “mask breath.”)

Limited travel and social interaction caused gum sales to plummet in the second quarter of 2020, with precipitous declines carrying over into recent yearly sales totals recorded by Chicago-based research firm IRI. 

Though the surging Delta variant threatens a return to lockdowns that could disrupt the segment once more, gum sales began to rebound earlier this summer as mask mandates and other restrictions were lifted. Gum manufacturers hope this, along with product innovation, will draw consumers back to the category.

Gum by the numbers

IRI data show the gum category has lost $755 million since 2019.

Specifically, in the year ending Sept. 8, 2019, the whole segment generated $3.13 billion, representing a 2.2 percent increase from 2018. In the 52 weeks ending June 14, 2020, that dropped by 8.2 percent to $2.88 billion. The gum category fell again this year — this time by 17.5 percent to total $2.38 billion in the year ending June 13, 2021. 

Splitting the category into regular and sugar-free gum further illustrates the declines:

Regular gum
$461.64 million in the year ending Sept. 8, 2019
$421.69 million in the year ending June 14, 2020
$359.33 million in the year ending June 13, 2021

Sugar-free gum
$2.67 billion in the year ending Sept. 8, 2019
$2.45 billion in the year ending June 14, 2020
$2.02 billion in the year ending June 13, 2021

However, comparing sales totals from May 2021 to June 2021 shows sales have picked up. In the 52 weeks ending May 16, the gum category pulled in $2.36 billion, down 19.8 percent from the year before. The category rose to $2.37 billion in the year ending June 13, showing a decline of 17.5 percent.

The regular gum segment brought in $357.41 million in the 52 weeks ending May 16, representing a drop of 16 percent. In the year ending June 13, that climbed to $359.33 million, with a decline of 14.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the sugar-free gum segment generated just under $2 billion in the year ending May 16, but it generated $2.02 billion in the year ending June 13. Sales declines went from 20.5 percent to 18.1 percent over the same period.

Mars Wrigley leads the category, occupying two-thirds of the regular gum market and just over half (53.54 percent) of the sugar-free market. The company has seven of the Top 10 regular gum brands and six of the Top 10 sugar-free brands tracked by IRI. 

In the year ending June 13, Mars Wrigley pulled in $236.76 million in the regular gum segment, down 20.5 percent from a year ago. The company generated $1.08 billion in the sugar-free gum segment, down 20.4 percent from 2020.

Mike Gilroy, v.p. of trade development and sponsorship at Mars Wrigley U.S., pointed to the unique challenges the gum category faced over the last year, but he remains optimistic.

“The category is resilient, and it continues to be an important product offering that consistently represents increased basket sizes,” he says. “As the producer of the world’s leading gum brands, today Mars Wrigley is more committed than ever in investing in the category to keep it top of mind and promote new usage occasions.”

Concord Confections, maker of Dubble Bubble, takes the second spot in the regular gum category, earning just over $44 million in the year ending June 13. That’s up 2 percent from a year ago.

The Hershey Co., maker of Bubble Yum, follows with $22.59 million, up 9.9 percent from a year ago. Big League Chew maker Ford Gum and Bubblicious maker Mondelez International round out the Top 5 with $16.83 million and $6.05 million, respectively. Ford Gum saw an increase of 16.6 percent, while Mondelez’s sales dropped by 12.5 percent.

However, on the sugar-free side, Mondelez International took the second spot, earning $393.92 million with its Trident and Dentyne brands. Its sales fell by 22.7 percent.

With its Ice Breakers brand, The Hershey Co. earned the third spot with $310.85 million, staying virtually flat with a dip of 0.9 percent. Perfetti Van Melle followed in the fourth spot, with $219.4 million, down almost 11 percent from 2020. Ferrero rounds out the Top 5 with $5.87 million.

A closer look

Most of Mars Wrigley’s regular and sugar-free brands saw double-digit declines over the year ending June 13, but one of its brands — Extra Refreshers — was one of two sugar-free brand to post double-digit gains in the same period.

According to IRI, Extra Refreshers pulled in $58.39 million, up 17.6 percent from a year ago. Gilroy cited the two-year-old gum brand’s soft texture, bold flavor and convenient bottle packaging as drivers for its growth.

“We know soft chew is one of the fastest-growing forms that over-indexes with younger consumers, and with that, Extra Refreshers was poised to become one of the most popular items in the confectionery aisle,” he says.

As the top-selling sugar-free brand, Extra pulled in $445.32 million in the 52 weeks ending June 13, down 15.9 percent from a year ago. Gilroy noted Mars Wrigley has supported the Extra brand with two marketing campaigns: “Real Friend Request,” which reflected the ways consumers tried to bond during quarantine, and “For When It’s Time,” which marked a return to in-person connections.

Extra’s preview film reminds everyone there are brighter days ahead – and when it’s time and it’s safe to return to some level of normal social activity, Extra gum will be there to give everyone a fresh start as they re-enter life,” he says.

Craig Cuchra, v.p. marketing, Perfetti Van Melle North America, says the company’s Mentos gum brands saw immediate declines in the second quarter of 2020. In the year ending June 13, the Mentos Pure Fresh brand generated $167.64 million, down 11 percent, and the Mentos brand pulled in $30.65 million, down 3.9 percent.

However, the Mentos Pure White brand earned $14.65 million, up 1.4 percent from a year ago.

Mentos gum is seeing growth in 2021 versus the same period during the pandemic,” Cuchra says. “While not back to 2019 levels, as consumers continue to embrace their communities opening up, mask mandates are being lifted, and people slowly start to return to the workforce, we expect gum sales to continue to climb.”

In a recent earnings call, The Hershey Co. said its U.S. candy, mint and gum retail takeaway increased 6.5 percent in the second quarter of 2021, driven by everyday take-home chocolate, along with the recovery of its instant consumables and refreshment products. Hershey says its refreshment products increased 26.7 percent as mobility and convenience store trips returned to pre-pandemic levels and social distancing and mask wearing waned with increased vaccination.

On the sugar gum side, Ford Gum says its Big League Chew brand faced some difficulty in 2020, as sports stores closed and professional and youth sports were suspended. However, the brand has bounced back, posting a 15.9 percent increase to $12.48 million in the year ending June 13.

“This pandemic was an opportunity to show how resilient Ford Gum can be during challenging times, and it’s no surprise that Big League Chew bubble gum continues to sell at increasing levels, particularly in the c-store category,” said Steve Greene, senior v.p., sales and marketing at Ford Gum. “We hit a home-run in 2020 with the release of our Slammin’ Strawberry and Seasonal Hot Chocolate flavor, which kept consumers curious, engaged and wanting more.”

The company said it also increased marketing efforts for the Big League Chew brand, bolstered its social media efforts and influencer relationships, engaged fans through a contest with the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and utilized partnerships to further its growth with organizations like Prep Baseball Report.

Product innovation

Though gum sales have been correlated with travel and social interaction, gum manufacturers have turned to innovation to reinvigorate the category. 

Gilroy says Mars Wrigley is banking on “larger, car-friendly” pack sizes to lead its innovation push, along with investing in marketing creative.

“Innovation is key and maintaining consumers' interest will be crucial to ensure this upward trend continues even after consumers return to normalcy,” he says. “Not only will manufacturers have to keep a pulse on consumer trends and introduce relevant offerings that excite shoppers, but they must also continue to rethink and redesign the shopping experience to meet consumers where they are today and maximize engagement.”

In May, Mars Wrigley debuted Orbit Mega Packs, which feature 30 pieces in a plastic package designed to be recycled in recycling streams that accept polypropylene. On the back of each pack are graphics from How2Recycle, a standardized labeling system that communicates a step-by-step guide to recycle each part of the pack once consumers are finished with the product.  

Orbit Mega Packs are available nationwide in Peppermint and Spearmint flavors.

“Last year, we saw greater consumer demand for larger pack sizes as people sought to stay stocked up for at home or on-the-go consumption,” Gilroy said. “With the launch of our more sustainable Orbit Mega Packs, we aimed to not only meet this need for a durable and portable pack for on-the-go usages, but also help contribute to a future with less plastic.”

Mars Wrigley recently introduced the limited-edition Extraordinary packs, featuring words of affirmation on every 15-stick pack. They’re available while supplies last in Spearmint, Peppermint, Polar Ice and Sweet Watermelon flavors.

In June, Perfetti Van Melle unveiled a 90 percent paperboard bottle for its Mentos Pure Fresh brand. Expected to hit shelves in the U.S. in the first half of 2022, the bottle is also on the larger side, featuring 80 pieces. 

The paperboard bottle earned the 2021 Most Innovative New Product Award in the Gum and Mint category, presented during the National Confectioners Associations’s Sweets & Snacks Expo.

In addition to sustainability, health is top of mind as consumers continue to navigate COVID-19 and its variants. To meet this need, Perfetti Van Melle is launching Mentos Gum with Vitamins. Featuring a Citrus flavor, the sugar-free gum offers Vitamins B6, B12 and C.

“Consumers continue to look for additional benefits from products they know and already use, as well as convenient yet sustainable upgrades to existing products and packaging,” Cuchra said.