basically marshmallow and sugar disguised as squishy, yellow, retarded looking birds, which have somehow managed to achieve cult status.
As indigestible in real life as in cyberspace, Peeps obsession can be seen in "adult" Peep sites, Peep chat groups, Peep recipes, Peep fan and pan pages, and even Just Born’s own "Peepsville," where one can join the official Marshmallow Peeps Fan Club at either the basic or the premium annual membership.
But the Peeps phenomenon appears to be merely a manifestation of an historically successful brand.
Though erroneous, the corporate press release, as well as every other blurb ever written about Just Born, proclaims that the "story began" in 1910, the year Sam Born landed on American soil from Russia, where he had already been trained in the art of candy making. The Just Born story (or legacy, or legend or whatever), in fact, began in 1916 when Sam Born invented a machine that stuck lollipop sticks into lollipops. (Born also invented chocolate "jimmies" or sprinkles, and chocolate coating for ice cream.)
In 1923, Born took his Born Sucker Machine and started his own candier in Brooklyn, New York, where he put his freshest fare in the window next to a sign advertising it as "just born." The original company logo played on this clever joke by featuring a baby snuggled in a candy scale.
Born then invited his two brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, to join him, beginning a family dynasty that survives to this very day (the grandsons are co-presidents). In 1932, the crew moved its facilities to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where, despite a labor shortage during the War years, everything went swimmingly.
Two decades later, Just Born acquired the Rodda Candy Co. – a move which later proved to be a lifesaver. Although fêted for its jelly beans, Rodda also maintained a small line of marshmallow products, one of which was a curious little bird called a "Peep" that took 27 hours to squeeze out of a pastry tube and hand decorate. It now takes six minutes per Peep, with candy-eye production at 3,500 per minute. (Just Born claims that this mechanized Peep-making process is a "trade secret," though factory tours, online close-ups and documentary film of the factory process are all easily accessible to the mildly curious.)
In the 1960s, due to crushing competition (Hershey’s, Godiva, M&M Mars and Nestlé all have distribution centers within a short distance of Philadelphia), Just Born dropped its line of chocolates to focus on its non-chocolate products.
Today, Just Born maintains an awesomely-automated factory employing more than 450 people, churning out hundreds of millions of Peeps a year (four million per day), not to mention various other candies such as cinnamon-flavored Hot Tamales, Mike and Ike’s and Teenee Beanee gourmet jelly beans.
Recognizing that the Peep was both its strongest (most identifiable) and most vulnerable (due to its easy-to-copy simplicity) product, the company recently overhauled the packaging to better feature the Peep brand name. It also retained the services of Will Vinton to come up with a clever dancing-Peeps TV spot set to the 1958 Jimmie Thomas song "Rockin’ Robin," similar to what Vinton had done years earlier for California raisins; the Peeps, of course, sing the chorus. Shrewdly, the ads are run on daytime shows, aimed at mothers aged 25 to 35.
Just Born also wisely, and successfully, moved its marshmallow operations into other holiday markets, including Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Halloween, for which it makes shape-appropriate sweets. Yet, its benchmark product remains the Peep. Most purchased color: yellow.
The company is beginning to establish an international presence, exporting to a multitude of countries, including Canada, Australia, the UK, Singapore and China. Though it doesn’t release its sales figures, the company says that exports make up about 10% of its sales. But Just Born hasn’t lost its local flavor. It is the recipient of local praise for its outreach and youth welfare programs in the community, once home to hard Bethlehem Steel, now capital of spongy Peeps. In 2000, Just Born was named the third best place to work in Pennsylvania.
Its business achievements aside, Just Born’s greatest triumph – its delightful mom-and-pop family image – also appears to exist by as much pure happenstance as the Peep. Writers simply adore making puns along the nature of: "Some people are just born for business"; "What will be heard…is more than just a peep from Just Born." Even the word play with Bethlehem proves irresistible.
The result is gobs of available literature on the company and its "strategies," consisting of little more than cut-and-paste corporate press releases, pun-heavy branding "articles" and fuzzy corporate strategy statements often having a lot to do with an American-dream tale of immigrant success and family values. More suspicious are those that seem downright false and easy enough to disprove. For instance, Edward Broczkowski, Export Development Manager at Just Born, claims that "In China, peeps are already a year-round item" (The Morning Call, August 25, 2000).
As a six year resident in China with close contacts remaining there, I can say that neither I nor my contacts have ever seen a Peep for sale in the two largest cities in China, Beijing and Shanghai. As it is unlikely the peep could have surpassed the large metropolitan markets and headed straight for the countryside, I can only wonder if by "China," Mr. Broczkowski is referring to Hong Kong, or erroneously, Taiwan – though it is still doubtful that the populace has accepted them as a "year-round" item.
It is examples like these that make the promotional material and resulting press feel as nutritiously bankrupt as a marshmallow but it’s difficult to garner more information as this very private company very publicly guards its hard facts.
Reported by CNN Business Unusual to reap over US$ 100M (E 337M) a year, and employing established industry image-spinners, certainly makes Just Born one of the largest "mom-and-pop" enterprises. Not to be misunderstood; business is business and practicing it in an ethical and compassionate fashion is certainly admirable. However, the bottom line is the bottom line and the only time a bottom line equals a fable is in the movies.