The Yankee Candle company sells nearly $1 billion in fragrant votives to its obsessive fans each year, said journalist Chavie Lieber. Its secret to success? A steady stream of new scents, some downright bizarre.
A burning love for scented candles
PINEAPPLE CILANTRO. Wedding Day. Lucky Shamrock. Bright Copper Kettles. Orange Dreamsicle. Safe & Citrus. Pink Sands. Bahama Breeze. Peach Cobbler. Picnic in the Park. Napa Valley Sun.
Yankee Candle sells every scent you can imagine, and many more you can’t. It’s also a company that seems to be everywhere, from big-box stores like Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond to small homegoods boutiques to the 585 Yankee Candle retail locations across the country.
The candle industry, in general, is having a moment, thanks in part to the rise of luxury candle brands. Yet even with the likes of Diptyque and Nest enjoying recent unprecedented success, nobody can come close to competing with Yankee Candle, a company responsible for nearly half of all candle sales in the country. It’s ubiquitous, and its fans are obsessive.
The Yankee Candle magic begins in Deerfield, Mass., home to Yankee Candle Village, a campus swaddled in tulips. There’s a gazebo and a quaint restaurant and a candle-making museum on the grounds.
There is, of course, also a Yankee Candle store there. You might even call it the Yankee Candle store. Housed inside a giant, repurposed barn that has vintage toy trains running on elevated tracks, it holds, among other things, rooms upon rooms upon rooms of candles—200 varieties in all.
The candles come in various forms (pillar, votive, jar, tumbler, tea light) and start at just $1. Some are displayed by category: “fresh scents” like Wild Sea Grass or Meadow Showers, or “food scents” like Peach Cobbler or Pumpkin Ginger Bark. Others are organized into collections that are a bit more high-concept: The “Catching Rays” section has candles like Morning Mist, Moonlit Garden, and Turquoise Sky, all of which are varying shades of blue and promise to make shoppers “feel warmed all throughout the day.”
In addition to an array of candle accessories, diffusers, and room sprays, the store also has a make-your-own-candle area, a section devoted to kitchenware, a Ben & Jerry’s counter, and a room filled with jams, jellies, and syrups. There’s a year-round Bavarian Christmas village that’s showered with fake snow every four minutes and has a toy shop with a resident Santa who refuses to break character. Yankee Candle Village is the epitome of sensory overload.
The village gets about 2 million visitors a year and is considered one of Massachusetts’ top tourist destinations, though locals frequent it, too.
“This is my happy place,” says Lisa McCannon, a 53-year-old Worcester, Mass., resident shopping with her daughter and granddaughter. “I discovered Yankee a long, long time ago, when I became a homeowner.”
“Everyone at school has these candles,” adds Maddy Sung, a 21-year-old college student at nearby Amherst College. She’s shopping with friends between finals. “It’s really popular around here.”
Here, sure, but everywhere else too.
TODAY, YANKEE CANDLE is a corporate giant, with 30,000 locations that sell its products in the U.S., in addition to those hundreds of retail stores. It also has a global reach, with several Yankee Candle outposts in Europe and Canada, and more than 10,000 stores that carry the brand outside of the U.S. Its beginnings, however, were as humble as they come.
In December 1969, a 17-year-old high school senior named Michael Kittredge didn’t have enough money for Christmas gifts and decided to make his own candles for his mother. He melted wax and crayons over a stovetop, and used a milk carton as a mold. After a family friend saw them and offered to buy the batch, Kittredge decided “that was all the applause I needed,” as he told The New York Times. “I went out, bought more wax, and sure enough, sold some more candles.”
By 1970, Kittredge’s operation had completely taken over his parents’ house, so he temporarily moved to an old mill in Holyoke, Mass., after securing a $2,000 loan from Hampshire National Bank using a guitar, a banjo, and an old stereo system as collateral. He called his company Yankee Candle, even though friends warned him the project wouldn’t succeed with such a “corny” name.
His venture took off, New England Business wrote, because it was “the last major candle company that still dips by hand.” Kittredge officially incorporated the company in 1976 and sold $21,000 worth of candles that year. By 1987, Yankee Candle had developed 50 different scents and was producing 30 million candles a year, bringing in an annual revenue of $6.5 million.
Although Yankee Candle had come a long way from Kittredge’s kitchen, the founder wanted the company to retain a sense of homey authenticity. This meant having handwritten labels and making sure there were whimsical storylines attached to each scent. Kittredge was also obsessed with how his stores looked and felt. A die-hard fan of the Walt Disney Co., he would often travel to Orlando to get display ideas from Disney theme parks. He wanted Yankee Candle locations to have the same emotional resonance as Disney World.
As the Massachusetts business journal BusinessWest put it in 1993, “How can a company succeed so well selling a product that’s been around for thousands of years— and that has been functionally obsolete for almost a century, thanks to Thomas Edison? Kittredge does not sell pieces of wax and string. He sells entertainment, fantasy, nostalgia, romance.”
Success kept coming. By the time Kittredge stepped down as president, in 1998, sales had reached $184.5 million. (He started another candle company, Kringle, with his son in 2009. Yes, it looks remarkably familiar.) In 1998, 90 percent of the firm was sold to an investment firm for a reported $400 million. Yankee Candle went into full expansion mode.
The company has gone through several more acquisitions in the past decade. In 2006, it was sold to Chicago investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners, and then again, in 2013, to Jarden, which merged late last year with Newell Brands. Still, its revenue has consistently climbed over the years, from $642 million in 2012 to $832 million in 2015.
Yankee Candle knows exactly whom it’s selling to. Eighty percent of its customers are women, and those women tend to be “between 30 and 50, mostly suburban, who have families and are homeowners,” according to Yankee CEO Hope Margala. And the brand works hard to give them exactly what they want: holiday candles like Christmas Cookie and Sparkling Cinnamon, and bestselling classic scents like Clean Cotton and Pink Sands.
The company also relies on a steady stream of new scents—some abstract, some straightup bizarre—to keep customers coming back, which is why you’ll see labels that read Schnitzel With Noodles, Movie Night, and A Child’s Wish.
In 2012, it introduced a men’s collection with scents like 2x4, Riding Mower, and Man Town. The line was supposed to attract male shoppers, but instead became a full-on sensation thanks to rabid female fans, many of whom took to social media to express their love for the man-scents. The response inspired a sketch from Jimmy Fallon and internet memes claiming that the Mountain Lodge scent was better than a boyfriend.
A FEW MINUTES down the road from Yankee Candle Village is the company’s production facility. It’s nearly as big as a football stadium and features 18 production lines, most of which are active around the clock—24 hours a day, seven days a week—to produce millions of candles a week. The facility employs 510 hourly employees and 90 salaried staff members, according to Jim Scott, the 62-year-old vice president of manufacturing.
The factory mixes 100 different fragrances a day, and smells sickeningly sweet, the result of countless distinct scents blended into one. It’s horrible. Scott says employees get used to it, for the most part—that is, unless bacon candles are in production. Mmm, Bacon! is a scent pretty much everyone at the plant finds particularly unsettling.
The factory is loud, with machines pouring, wicking, wrapping, boxing, and labeling; employees on the floor move product through the process, inspecting it along the way. Last year, the facility made 77 million jar candles, 60 million votives, and 50 million tea lights, which the brand calls “tarts.”
Down on the floor, streams of red wax— Caramel Apple Cake—pour straight into glass jars at 155 degrees. After the batch is finished, the same machine begins to pour another scent, Autumn Leaves, but the first few batches will be separated out. Since they aren’t 100 percent “pure” scents, they’ll go to a Yankee Candle outlet.
“You see all those candles in the store and you think, ‘Oh, these must have been made by elves!’” jokes Scott. “But really, it’s this whole process.”
‘SCENT IS THE quickest way to change someone’s mood, quicker than any other sense or modality. It affects the emotional part of your brain.” This is how Dr. Alan Hirsch of Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation explains the draw of scented candles.
“When you collect candles,” he says, “you aren’t just collecting the smell of the candle, you are also collecting the emotion of the experience when you first created the memory associated with the candle’s scent.”
Yankee Candle’s Macintosh scent (as in Macintosh apple) is what got 37-year-old Kevin Russo hooked on the brand nearly 20 years ago. The candle was a constant at his grandmother’s house, and it continues to remind him of his happy childhood memories. It’s a similar story for Zac Szoke. Yankee Candle scents help the freelance pharmaceutical marketer with his anxiety. When he moved from New Jersey to Maine for a job a few months ago, he lit Lilac Blossom candles because they make him think of home—specifically, of his grandmother, who passed away 11 years ago.
Russo, who reviews his weekly Yankee Candle hauls on his YouTube channel, has experimented with other candle companies like Jo Malone (“overrated”) and Diptyque (“it’s really out of my price range”) and indie brands sold at Anthropologie. He declares that Yankee Candle is the best.
“Their scents are the most true to life,” says Russo. “Their Chocolate Layer Cake candle literally smells like cake batter coming straight out of your oven! No other company can do that.”
Both Russo and Szoke are part of a large network of Yankee Candle superfans who have mobilized thanks to social media. They’re both members of Team Yankee, a Facebook group started by Andy Fairclough, a business manager who lives just outside of London. The group has more than 4,000 members and a long wait list. It should be noted that many of these members are male—although 80 percent of Yankee Candle customers are women, the male 20 percent are exceptionally devoted.
Fairclough owns about 350 large Yankee Candle jars, and like many fans, he chases after discontinued scents like Pink Lady Slipper, Silver White Winters, and Rainbow’s End. Some of these scents are considered “the holy grail of Yankee Candle,” Fairclough says, and people will spend hundreds of dollars to buy them off sites like eBay.
Some candles are “definitely keepers, and not burners,” Fairclough says, meaning they remain untouched, never to be lit.
“I got a candle yesterday called Sunflower. I can’t explain it, and I know it sounds crazy, but it truly did smell like a ray of sunshine!” he laughs.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared on Vox Media’sRacked.com. Reprinted with permission.