“Two countries divided by the same language” is a saying credited to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill, but whoever said it, I’m choosing to paraphrase them as “Two countries divided by the same brand” for a story about Mars’ Milky Way.
Milky Way is a brand name attached to two different products, the original in America and the second in the UK.
The American Milky Way bar is a candy bar made of chocolate-malt nougat topped with caramel and covered with milk chocolate, and is actually very similar to the Mars bar sold in other countries including the UK. The UK Milky Way bar is a confectionery (not candy) bar of whipped chocolate-malt nougat covered in milk chocolate but without the caramel layer.
Despite the fact that they are manufactured by Mars, the name Milky Way was not a deliberate choice as another cosmic reference but rather a nod to a popular milkshake produced in the 1930s.
The story starts with the birth of Franklin Clarence Mars on September 23, 1883 in Newport, Minnesota. As a child, Frank suffered from polio, which was to leave him disabled. One consequence of this was that Frank wasn’t as mobile as other children and so spent a lot of time watching his mother bake and cook, including watching her make fresh chocolates.
His early interest led to his first business ventures and he built himself up as a pretty successful wholesaler in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. In 1902, he married Ethel G. Kissack and, about a year later, his first son, Forrest, was born.
However, the candy business was changing. The Hershey Bar, the first mass-produced chocolate bar, had been introduced in 1900 and competition exploded.
Frank’s wholesale business went under.
In 1910, Ethel divorced Frank on the grounds that he was unable to support her. She won sole custody of Forrest and sent him to live with her parents in Canada. They would rarely see each other until many years later when their reunion would spark the idea that would ultimately make both their fortunes.
Frank remarried and, in 1920, after two further failures with candy wholesale businesses, he and his new wife, another Ethel, moved back to Minnesota where he moved into production of his own candies.
Building slowly from his special-recipe butter creams, he developed a candy bar with caramel, chocolate and nuts, which he called the Mar-O-Bar.
Meanwhile Forrest Mars had grown up. He left Canada, attended college at Berkeley and later, Yale before becoming a travelling salesman for Camel cigarettes.
In 1923, the two were to meet again though not under the most auspicious of circumstances.
In his drive for success, Forrest had gone a little over-the-top. He and his team had plastered ads for Camel right across the city, including all over various municipal signs. The local establishment weren’t impressed and he was arrested.
Forrest turned to his now prosperous father and asked for help. Frank bailed him out.
It was when they were catching up later, at a soda counter, that Forrest made the off-the-cuff suggestion. Looking down at his glass he said, “’Why don’t you put a chocolate-malted drink in a candy bar?’”
Frank took the suggestion seriously and started pondering on how he could achieve what his son had suggested.
Frank was already aware of what was known as “Minneapolis Nougat”, a variation of traditional nougat developed by the Pendergast Candy Company, made from whipped egg whites and sugar syrup.
He decided to try a bar of the Minneapolis Nougat, with an added layer of caramel and dipped in chocolate. He called it Milky Way after the malted milkshake that had prompted Frank’s idea.
It had big advantages over bars made from solid chocolate, nuts and other ingredients. It was cheap to make and lightweight. It was also, perhaps more importantly, bigger than competing candies. “People walked up to the candy counter, and they’d see this flat little Hershey bar for a nickel and right next to it, a giant Milky Way for the same price. Guess which one they’d pick?” Forrest said.
Within a year, Mars’ sales jumped by tenfold, grossing about $800,000 (equivalent to about $11 million today). Forrest was to say later, “that damn thing sold with no advertising.”
Later on, the brand would be supported by now famous advertising. In 1935, “The sweet you can eat between meals” campaign was launched. It was to become “At work, rest and play, you get three great tastes in a Milky Way.”
The relationship between father and son wasn’t always smooth. Forrest had ideas which he thought would make the business more successful. He tried to convince his father to give him control and let him expand to Canada. Frank refused and arguments continued.
In the end, Frank gave Forrest $50,000 and foreign rights to Milky Way.
Based in Europe, Forrest studied the competition and recognised that there were differences between the two continents’ tastes. He tweaked the recipe of the Milky Way and called the new confectionery the Mars Bar. It was a huge success.
Forrest, and Mars internationally, were to go on to launch a version of his new Mars Bar without the caramel layer.
He borrowed not only the “Milky Way” name but one of his father’s old advertising campaigns “The sweet you can eat between meals”, reflecting the fact that, in the UK and elsewhere, the Milky Way is much lighter than a Mars bar (or a US Milky Way).
Footnote : Fun fact – the density of a UK Milky way is so low (0.88 g/cm3) that it floats when placed in milk.