Big brand spending has only damaged the gum market. Does its salvation lie in reminding people of when and why they should use it, asks Alex Beckett

The Ancient Greeks, American GIs and Sir Alex Ferguson have all been known to enjoy a chomp on a piece of gum, but the struggling sweet has proven a tough product to market of late.

While chocolate embraces Fairtrade and sugar confectionery reaps the rewards of retro fever, chewing gum is floundering.

Three years after Cadbury pitched Trident into battle against Mars-owned Wrigley, total category sales have dropped 5.6% to £242.6m [Nielsen 52 w/e 20 February 2010], dragged down by market leader Wrigley Extra, which has slumped 11.2% to £137.9m. Orbit is down 2.7% to £20.4m and despite bootylicious Beyoncé's £2.5m campaign last year, Trident nosedived 32.8% to £16.5m. So how can it recover?

"Chewing gum got too complicated for its own good," says Giles Lury, director of branding at Value Engineers. "There was an explosion of fruit flavours a few years ago, which led to a cluttered shelf space that was hard to navigate. In some ways it was a victim of its own success."

As far as wacky fruit flavours goes, the finger must point at Trident. It burst impetuously on to the scene in 2007 and clocked up first-year sales of £33m with liquid-filled gums in flavours such as chocolate mint and apple & apricot.

But as consumers lost their taste for the Heston Blumenthal-style flavour combinations, sales waned and last year it axed five SKUs including chocolate mint to concentrate on the less controversial peppermint and spearmint (although, surprisingly, strawberry & lime survived the chop).

The restrained approach has also seen a packaging overhaul with a more "adult" design. "Because the wrappers are 'quieter,' with more blank space, they stand out more effectively on what is still a busy shelf. It is more appealing to a wider, more adult audience," says Lynn Vandeveer, director of marketing for mints and gums at Cadbury. "Fruity flavours launched by Wrigley and us were difficult to link to a routine they were less refreshing flavours."

Vandeveer is also looking to get involved in meal deals. "If you've had a sandwich with onion in it, or a curry, retailers could introduce a pack of Trident to freshen breath. Our strategy is building new routines about gum."

Establishing a habitual routine is also at the core of Wrigley's rescue strategy, which involves investing £10m in reminding consumers of all the usage occasions. Quite a statement, as Wrigley "very rarely" reveals its total spends. This week, it teamed up with takeaway and coffee chains to advertise Extra on 600,000 takeaway curry lids and four million coffee cups to reinforce the freshening messaging.

In the same vein, its new Toy Story-esque TV ad Food Creatures depicts walking talking coffee cups and onion creatures lurking behind humans to illustrate the noxious effect of such products on breath. Wrigley marketing director Toby Baker predicts the new strategy will appeal to a wider range of consumers than its previous push the sponsorship of Hollyoaks.

Reminding people of when they should chew gum and providing a more sophisticated product were two factors behind the launch of startup Peppersmith in January. It is a step ahead of Wrigley, with listings in independent coffee shops in London, but co-founder Mike Stevens disagrees the problem with gum is consumers' memory.

"I don't think consumers need to be reminded when they need to chew gum but they do need to be given opportunity to buy in environments where they want to freshen up. At the moment if you want gum after a coffee you have to visit your corner store."

Regardless of how it repositions itself, in the long term gum faces a battle to retain its relevancy in a changing world. "Society doesn't have a good perception of gum and it lacks positive role models," says Jury. "Gum has a long-term societal battle to fight."

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