Ernie Savo, president, global licensing and business development, The Hershey Licensing Company, is taking the confectionery brand beyond the snack aisle and onto every shelf in retail.

Patricia DeLuca, Senior Managing Editor

February 22, 2024

8 Min Read
Croc's featuring Hershey's chocolate and Reese's Cups.
Croc's featuring Hershey's chocolate and Reese's Cups.Crocs

The Hershey Company is a worldwide household name. Approaching its 130th year, the confectionery and snacking company has more than 80 brands in its portfolio, including Reese’s, Hershey’s, Jolly Rancher, Kit Kat, Heath, Hershey’s Kisses, Hershey’s Cookies ‘N’ Cream, Hershey’s S’mores, York, Reese’s Pieces and Twizzlers. Most brands have robust licensing programs, placing The Hershey Company at No. 27 on License Global’s Top Global Licensors report in 2023.

Ernie Savo, president, global licensing and business development, The Hershey Licensing Company, has been at the helm of the company’s licensing division for more than 20 years. Under his supervision, The Hershey Company has extended its presence in the supermarket aisle and, more recently, outside most retail avenues. In January, Falcon’s Beyond secured the licensing rights to develop Hershey-themed location-based experiences (LBEs) both inside and outside the U.S. License Global caught up with Savo to discuss his career trajectory and how it led to where he is now.

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License Global: How did you get started in licensing?

Ernie Savo: I kicked off my marketing career with Toys 'R’ Us, working in consumer promotions and focusing on the brand’s promotional brand strategy. I then accepted a role with Nickelodeon, where I was responsible for kid-centric partnership marketing. I developed expertise in building promotional and event-driven partnerships across Nickelodeon’s traditional lines of business (television, consumer products, feature film, magazine and online) and their ancillary business (publishing, software licenses, toys and apparel). 

I realized the value licensing has on a brand; my interest grew as I learned the ins and outs of the licensing industry. From the beginning of my career, I was surrounded by licensing and intrigued by the endless opportunities licensing presents. When the prospect of taking on licensing at The Hershey Company presented itself, it was a natural fit, considering my prior experience in partnership marketing and my desire to tap into an industry Hershey had not yet explored. 

The food and beverage category represented $3.6 billion in retail revenue for licensed consumer products, according to our Top Global Licensors report in 2023, and Hershey came in at $1.9 billion. What is the biggest change you’ve seen within Hershey’s licensing program since you started with the company? 

Today, The Hershey Company considers licensing a strategic lever for brand-building. However, during the beginning phases of cultivating our licensing strategy, we faced concerns about the impact and potential cannibalization that licensed products could have on our core business. We have now quantified the impact of licensing using shopper data and can demonstrate how licensed items in a shopper’s basket support Hershey’s confectionery business with both increased purchase frequency and total dollars spent. We now know that having our brands represented in several top categories among food and general merchandise strengthens brand loyalty and affinity.

Additionally, we have cultivated great relationships with a roster of best-in-class licensee partnerships, enabling growth for The Hershey Company and our partners. Many of our licensee partners have been with us for 10 to 20 years or more and have created strong, sustainable businesses that resonate with consumers and reinforce the power of our brands. 

The Hershey Company has collaborated with everyone from the NCAA, the Olympics, Warner Bros. and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, D.C. Comics, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and more. What is the common thread between these licensed collaborations?

Every partnership or brand initiative The Hershey Company considers always starts with the consumer, and our in-bound licensing program is established with our consumers at the forefront. Our promotional programming and seasonal collaborations are designed to enable shoppers to celebrate their favorite occasions in conjunction with our brands. Whether capturing the excitement around national sporting events or dressing up a holiday candy dish with the iconic Grinch character, our brands will be front and center for consumers. We leverage creative programming to build retail merchandising support, allowing consumers to find our top brands easily. 

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Another common thread between these properties is their evergreen status. We choose partners well aligned with The Hershey Company’s brand portfolio and messaging. Our brands are market leaders, with the Reese’s brand being a $3 billion plus brand and owning the chocolate and peanut butter combination, and the Hershey’s brand being a share leader within chocolate. By collaborating with partners who are also iconic in their own space, we ensure a successful partnership that truly disrupts the marketplace. 

How does food and beverage sit with health and beauty licensing, like the Hershey x Caboodles collaboration? 

While food and beverage is the largest category in our global licensed portfolio, our general merchandise program, inclusive of toys and games, home, health and beauty, apparel and trend and occasions/seasonal segments, remains an integral part of our program. These categories support brand affinity and provide additional touch points for incorporating our household brands into the lives of our shoppers. Brands like ours, which have been around 75 to more than 100 years, have started to belong to our consumers, and we know they want to express their brand love in various ways. 

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Hershey has collaborations that could fall under streetwear, with Crocs and Sprayground and Jolly Rancher x New Balance. Will there be an expansion in apparel and accessories licensing? 

Collaborations like these continue to bring brand awareness and engagement for both us and our partners. In 2023, the Crocs and Sprayground collaborations generated over 4 billion impressions. We are always looking for collaborations in apparel to complement our ongoing and significant mass apparel business with industry leaders such as Mad Engine and newly added power players, Isaac Morris and Komar. 

Some of the food collaborations may seem “meta” to the casual fan, like Chips Ahoy! and Hershey’s, Haribo and Hershey’s for Halloween or Ocean Spray x Hershey’s. How were those collaborations received, and are there plans to do more collaborations in the snacking space?

We aim to surround consumers with brands they love across the snacking category and understand that snacking takes on different forms. Consumers seek out variety, and incorporating our brands into new and different snacking formats reinforces the taste and performance they expect and the uniqueness they want in each given category. Our Chips Ahoy! licensing agreement has been in place for over a decade and is still experiencing growth. It is a mainstay in the cookie category and a meaningful way for consumers to have an authentic Reese’s experience while indulging in the cookie-snacking occasion. Chocolate-enrobed dried fruits are seen as an alternative better-for-you snack choice, and by using Hershey’s chocolate, our licensee can be confident they will deliver on the consumer’s expectations. Food licensing within these segments will continue for us so long as consumers are snacking. 

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National Chocolate Day may be a social media holiday in July, but Feb. 14 Valentine’s Day is linked to chocolate. Will there be new collaborations for the holiday? 

We recently inked a deal with Peanuts Worldwide and will introduce a special Valentine’s offering for 2024. For the first time, the Hershey’s brand and Peanuts are teaming up to celebrate moments of togetherness and friendship with new HERSHEY’S KISSES Milk Chocolates with Snoopy & Friends Foils and Heart Box. Snoopy fans will recognize beloved characters like Woodstock, Charlie Brown and Lucy, playfully adorned on the HERSHEY’S KISSES treats in each bag. The products look – and, of course, taste – fantastic and are a great way for seasonal consumers to inspire sweet connections with all they cherish this Valentine’s Day. 

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What’s next for Hershey in licensing? 

As part of Hershey licensing’s long-term growth strategy, we identified location-based entertainment as a key focus. Location-based entertainment includes all forms of consumer engagement outside the home. This was focused on theme parks and water parks; however, over the past two decades, the sector has grown to include traveling exhibitions (The "Friends" Experience, The Dr. Seuss Experience and NERF Action Experience), family entertainment centers (LEGO Discovery Centers, Crayola Experience), themed restaurants ("Angry Birds" `Café NYC and Peanuts Café) and in hotels/resorts (Nickelodeon and Margaritaville). 

Consumers are seeking “experiences," and brands remain important to them. We are laying the foundation for a robust location-based entertainment licensing program. Through a cautious and meticulous approach, we’re seeking out best-in-class partners and focusing on creative that will further enhance our portfolio of brands. We are poised to launch our two first initiatives, a traveling experience due to open pre-holiday 2024 (the first target market is Chicago) and a destination resort attraction in 2025 (with expansion to future resorts as the licensee develops them). We also have ongoing discussions for additional opportunities that fit our location-based entertainment strategy.

What advice would you give to someone starting in licensing? 

Have a thorough understanding of your consumer and their interests. Know the categories where your consumers are shopping, and your brand currently doesn’t participate. Choose categories that add incremental value to your portfolio and focus on the long-term strategy. Secure deals with licensees with whom you can build a strong, mutually beneficial relationship versus transactional; in other words, choose partners you can trust and with whom you share similar values.

About the Author(s)

Patricia DeLuca

Senior Managing Editor, License Global

Patricia DeLuca currently serves as License Global's Senior Managing Editor.

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