NEW YORK (CNNfn) - In the hyperactive $22 billion world of the U.S. candy industry, filled with rainbow colors, loud noises and mountains of sugar, the big confectioners must be willing to keep up with the attention spans of their under-12 market. And one in particular, Willy Wonka, has discovered something shocking.
Kids aren't especially crazy about chocolate [78K WAV] [78K AIFF].
If you blend children's taste for sweets with the predicted baby boom coming over the next decade, it should come as no surprise that food companies are hungry to share in the confection industry's profits. Furthermore, sugar-based candy -- as opposed to chocolates -- is the fastest-growing segment of the market.
Nestle, one of the world's biggest chocolate producers, has tapped Jim Griffin to give a jolt to the company's sugar candy brand, Willy Wonka.
"I've been Wonkanized and I've been ordained to Wonkanize others," said Griffin. "It's a great skill."
The Willy Wonka candy company has been quietly churning out confections from its suburban Chicago headquarters for the last quarter century.
In an ironic twist, the company -- named after the fictitious chocolate factory created by Roald Dahl -- doesn't produce chocolate candy, only sugar-based brands ranging from Shock Tarts to Nerds to Runts.
"When I first took this job, I asked somebody, 'What does Wonka make?' and I checked with my kids," Griffin explained. "You ask any child between the ages of four and twelve, they know Nerds. You don't have to ask twice."
Analysts say such high brand recognition is impressive, particularly when you consider that Nestle has spent almost no money advertising the brand until recently.
"We talk to kids all the time," Griffin said. "We're always in touch with children to find what they like and what they don't like."
It's a smart move. Experts say kids today have become very brand-savvy.
"We find that children as young as two are making decisions about what they want," said Lisbeth Echeandia of Confectioner Magazine. "They can't quite say it but by the time they're five they're pretty clear."
While Nestle doesn't publish sales numbers for the Wonka unit, analysts say the candy maker is doing well. However, to double its sales, it will need to keep coming up with new colors, new flavors, new textures, because the only thing it can count on in its fickle market is that kids like choice and they like change.
"They need to continue to do what they've done in the past, which is cater to children and cater to children well," said Echeandia. "I think they need to not lose sight of what their strengths are; not try to sort of diversify and suddenly come out with products that are chocolate."
Regardless, sneak previews of the company's new product have revealed that the real-world Wonka's aversion to chocolate may soon be ending. The product looks, smells, and tastes just like a chocolate bar.
Experts also say that Griffin faces a more serious task than the typical confectioner's occupational hazards of chipped teeth or swollen waistlines -- keeping Wonka autonomous within Nestle, the world's largest food empire. In order to stay in touch with kids' rapidly-changing tastes, the company has to stay fast and mobile.
"They give us that autonomy," said Griffin. "They're very big into giving and empowering people."
"If you're not out there, if you're not risking failure, you're not going to succeed," he added. "So we're on the edge."
-- by staff writer Lesley Geary