BC Alum Presents New, Natural Candy Brand
Published: Thursday, January 24, 2013
Updated: Friday, January 25, 2013 14:01
John Burns, BC ’94 and CEO of Unreal Brands, is a man on a mission. Bringing experience from key roles at two venture capital firms, Highland Capital and now Raptor Consumer Partners, Burns has already had success with companies such as Lululemon and Pinkberry, and spoke Wednesday evening on the history, challenges, and decisions at his current project, Unreal.
“Businesses in the 21st century need a purpose,” Burns said. “With Unreal Brands, that purpose is to “prove that things don’t have to be the way they are,” and specifically to “take the ‘junk’ out of junk food.” Although they are in the process of launching “unjunking” efforts for soft drinks, breakfast cereal, and other goods, they have chosen to start in the most unlikely place: candy.
“We picked it because it’s the hardest,” he said. “If you can do it with candy, you can do it everywhere.” He described candy as a $30 billion industry that has rarely seen innovation. With 40 percent less sugar, no preservatives, no corn syrup, no GMOs, and all materials traceable to non-child labor sources, Unreal comes in at the perfect place.
An audience member asked whether candy was the wrong field to enter, considering the overall mission of healthy food. Burns said, “Giselle Bundchen eats candy. Jillian Michaels eats candy. Everyone eats candy. We’re not trying to force more candy on you, but if you do eat it, you should know that this is the better choice.”
The mission also has major implications in branding. Unreal has attracted big-name supporters such as Matt Damon, Tom Brady, John Legend, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who, as Burns exclaims, “never does anything for companies!” These celebrities were willing to offer their assistance in marketing the product because they believed in its message.
In candy, as in any industry, there is the age-old tension between the purity of the mission and the ability to market the product. In other words, while the candy should produce social good, it must also become popular enough to make a lasting impact. The method Burns has taken is to distinguish his product, not through raising the price any higher than traditional candies, but through wisely positioning the brand so as to create loyalty.
A key strategy is to target people in their 20s and 30s. “We want you to believe that this is your candy, not something that your grandparents were eating,” he said. There are several reasons the younger generation might enjoy the candy that Burns describes as “at the forefront of the movement called conscious capitalism”: “You are socially responsible, digitally connected, and want to be a part of things.”
While at BC, Burns majored in finance and information systems, and one area that draws his interest is the digital part of marketing, so Unreal has been partnering with services such as Foursquare in addition to traditional advertising, in an attempt to show young people the candy that “has a mission, is better for you, and just more fun.”
Throughout the presentation, the audience responded enthusiastically with their questions and opinions, sharing their comments on three types of potential packaging for the candy. In particular, they voted so overwhelmingly for a simple black package that Burns decided to take a picture reflecting the consensus in the room. “Packaging is crucial,” Burns said, as “billboards” that clearly reflect the product’s identity.
Unreal’s candy is already sold in 20,000 stores, but Burns has even greater ambitions: “In the coming year, you will go nowhere without seeing Unreal.” He also said that the company will work continuously to make “the best candy humanly possible.”
Event coordinator Derek Switaj, CSOM ’15, said, “The attendance at Wednesday’s E-Mixer reflects the Boston College Entrepreneur Society’s goal of catering to a wide variety of people and groups on campus.” Audience members ranged from freshmen to graduate students, and Switaj hopes for a similar turnout for the Grindstone, a weekly event for aspiring entrepreneurs.