In 1947, the Topps company introduced what might just have been one of Brooklyn's first artisanal products, a thick pink slab of sugary stuff wrapped in red, white and blue wax paper with a free cartoon inside. Can you guess what it was? If you said Bazooka bubble gum, you're right.
The thing is, you're probably over 50, too. Bazooka bubble gum—known for its signature flavor, its eye patch-wearing mascot Bazooka Joe, and the tiny comics tucked inside the wrapper—became a staple of postwar culture. To younger Americans, though, that's ancient history.
Now, Bazooka is making a bid to reclaim its confectionery glory and hopefully nab a new generation of customers in the process.
Making its official debut today is Bazooka Sugar Free, which combines the gum's original postwar flavor with a new format (joining the slab of sugar-dusted gum, replaced are candy-coated pieces) and new packaging (in a 60-piece to-go cup and a 22-piece tube).
And while Bazooka Joe (see box below) still has his job, he'll have to share the stage with at least one millennial star. As part of a new partnership with Marvel and Disney, Bazooka will feature Captain America, as well as Anna and Elsa from Frozen, on its packaging. (Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner bought Topps in 2007, so the affiliation probably isn't coincidental.)
"We took a look at the gum landscape and saw there was an opportunity for Bazooka to bring the classic flavor to sugar-free," said Nicole Rivera, Topps' director of marketing and innovation. As for the characters, "Bazooka Joe is always going to be the spokesperson," she said, but Elsa and Captain America will help get "a new generation of people to come along for the ride."
Just for the record, Captain America is 75. But Elsa, who came into our lives in 2013, is a heroine for elementary school kids everywhere. And for a brand like Bazooka—for bubble gum overall, actually—that's critical.
Chewing gum finds itself in a sticky situation these days. According to research from Mintel, sales have been slipping for years and are forecast to decline by over 11 percent between 2016 and 2020. Increasingly, consumers are turning to mints and breath-freshening strips that don't come with gum's social baggage—namely, how to dispose of it when the flavor's gone as well as the uncouth sight of one's jaws constantly working.
What's more, the No. 1 reason gum chewers chew gum in the first place (to get fresh breath) doesn't really apply to bubble gum at all. As Mintel's director of innovation and insight Lynn Dornblaser observes, bubble gum's popularity tends to decline as the chewer grows up, and it takes a particular hit when he or she enters the workforce.
"Blowing bubbles with your gum by then is just not the thing, I'd say," Dornblaser ventured.
Of course, that's a big part of the reason Bazooka has put the characters on its new packaging, and in fact, Bazooka is the sole gum licensee for Captain America and Elsa. (The Disney princess will have her own flavor—blue raspberry—leaving Captain America to introduce Bazooka's original flavor in sugar-free.) Coating the gum with a candy shell was also an important move to get Bazooka up to date, since "the pellet format is what consumers are chewing today," Rivera said.
This isn't the first time Bazooka's been hauled into the branding shop for a tune-up. The brand tweaked its packaging in 2006 but, stung by sales declines, undertook a more extensive revamp of its packaging and logo again in 2012. The following year, it rolled out a sugar-free variety, too. But Bazooka had kept the gum's old "chunk" format, which felt dated to consumers accustomed to the smooth, coated pieces that had become an industry standard. So this time around, just about everything is new—gum, packaging and tie-in characters.
Which is smart, according to Dornblaser. "I think the company offering [the gum] with a crispy outside and chewy inside makes a lot of sense, as does the new package format," she said. "It puts the gum more front-and-center for chewing occasions—have it on your desk in the office, in the kitchen or family room at home, that kind of thing—and having sugar-free varieties is essential these days."
The only trouble, she notes, is that such sweeping changes made to a heritage brand risk turning off customers old enough to remember the original Bazooka, the gum that used to sell for a penny a piece and came with those tiny comics inside. Even so, Dornblaser said, "I doubt most consumers under the age of 50 would know the background or appreciate that a comic comes inside the wrapper."
Well, good news, baby boomers: In addition to having that original flavor, Bazooka's new sugar-free gum will come with those cartoons. They'll fold out, accordion style, from the lid of the 60-pack cup. "You can open it up, and it has comics and games on it," Rivera said. "And we're working on something similar for the slim tube—there's more to come on that."