Even as Hershey and Ferrero separately confirmed yesterday that they were considering seeking a marriage with the British chocolate and gum maker Cadbury yesterday, the company that has made all the running in the contest so far, Kraft Foods, struck a devil-may-care pose, insisting it would make a far more attractive bride.
Some analysts argued that bringing of new players into the game at the very least pointed to a bidding war for Cadbury, which saw its shares tick up in London trading on the news, even if scepticism abounded about how Hershey and Ferrero would in practice raise the necessary financing for such a rival endeavour.
But Kraft, which turned hostile last week with a $16.8bn (£10bn) offer that Cadbury has described so far as "derisory", said it would not be distracted by the Hershey-Ferrero maneouvres. "We remain confident that we are absolutely the best, most logical partner for Cadbury," said Perry Yeatman, a spokesman for Kraft, which makes food products ranging from Velveeta cheese to Oreo cookies.
After media reports that it had been talks with the privately held Ferrero "for weeks" about making a joint bid for Cadbury, Hershey offered an acknowledgement of sorts. "Hershey confirms that it is reviewing its options and at this stage there can be no assurance that any proposal or offer from Hershey will be forthcoming," it said. The company, controlled by a charitable trust, is based in the town bearing the same name in Pennsylvania.
A similar statement was offered the normally secretive Ferrero based near Turin, best known for its Ferrero Rocher chocolates, Nutella spread and Tic Tacs. Neither of the two firms offered any confirmation that they were working together on a putative joint bid for the British company, however.
Hershey, which has a product line that includes Hershey's Kisses and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, is the largest chocolate maker in the US and already has a relationship with Cadbury, making some of its products, like Creme Egg, under licence for its own markets, though the ingredients are not the same.
However, analysts saw several potential obstacles to Hershey making a serious run at Cadbury, not least among them that the trust would have to abandon the current ownership structure that preserves its absolute control over the company's business. Having Ferrero on hand to help raise the necessary debt would help, but that alliance raises questions over which of the two buyers would grab which parts of the prize. A break-up of Cadbury would be likely.
"Significant questions remain regarding how any deal might be put together, not least in terms of product and/or geographical segmentation," said Jeremy Batstone-Carr, an analyst at Charles Stanley in London. "The likely complexities associated with a rival approach for Cadbury in purely practical terms leave us strongly of the view that Kraft remains the strongest rival but that it will need to increase its offer in order to win control."
Hitherto, Kraft has resolutely refused to sweeten its offer. But the pressure to do so may now become irresistible. It may also be growing nervous that if the playing field is suddenly open to all comers, rivals much more formidable than Hershey or Ferrero might suddenly rush in, namely either Nestlé or Uniliver.
"What it means for Kraft is if they are going to want to sign, seal and deliver this, they are going to have to up their bid," said Edward Jones's analyst Jack Russo.
Cadbury remains cool to all its suitors – declared, semi-declared or hiding in the shadows. While it has flatly rejected the Kraft bid it continues to say it will give "proper consideration" to all good-faith advances.