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Meeting chocolate consumers where they are

Meeting chocolate consumers where they are

You may remember that we wrote a blog post about how fine chocolate ISN’T like wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. If you haven’t read the post yet, you can read it here. Or if you want a quick summary – fine chocolate is often compared to these industries as they are all luxury/specialty products that have seen a rise in consumer demand, and in their willingness to pay more for these products. There are many similarities and lessons that the fine chocolate industry can learn from each of these industries. But there’s one critical difference – chocolate is a food that most people (particularly in North America and Europe) grow up eating as children, whereas coffee, beer and wine are products that most people don’t consume very much until they are adults. So our challenge in the fine chocolate industry when it comes to both educating and marketing to consumers doesn’t simply involve selling them a product, it involves helping them to relearn what they think of as chocolate. We also offer some marketing tips in that article too – again, you can find it here.

As our industry grows and we work towards our common goal of educating consumers about why they should buy fine chocolate instead of mass market chocolate, it is our belief that this critical difference is one that can help our marketing and education efforts.

If we are to help consumers understand the differences between “fine” chocolate and mass market chocolate, and persuade them to open their wallets to spend more, then perhaps the place to start is meeting them where they are.

Meeting chocolate consumer where they are, and bringing them along with us

At a panel on consumer education at a recent FCIA meeting, Theo Chocolate CEO Etienne Patout pointed to the example of Starbucks – Starbucks didn’t start with fancy lattes and frappuccinos®, they met consumers where they were – drip coffee. Once they had their hearts and wallets with drip coffee, they gradually brought them along into the world of espresso based drinks. Eventually, people were happily paying $5 or more EVERY DAY for something that used to cost $2 or less.

On the same panel, Brad Kintzer from TCHO Chocolate mentioned that their best seller is a dark chocolate bar with almonds and sea salt. It’s not one of their fanciest bars, it doesn't have the most unique flavor profile, but people love it. It probably tastes similar to the hunks of chocolate bark that they grew up eating as kids, but better! It's an "entry" chocolate, it's approachable, and it helps them appreciate a chocolate bar with high quality ingredients in a familiar context.

Another recent comment from an industry colleague at the Northwest Chocolate Festival was "chocolate makers make chocolate to impress other chocolate makers". Unfortunately, I can't recall who said it but it struck me as such an interesting point. Are we actually making products that consumers want? Are we focusing on the details that they actually care about? Maybe this is the time that we need to pause and take stock of where we are.

Please don’t misunderstand our point – we love a 70% single origin chocolate bar that has coaxed the perfect delicate flavor balance out of the beans. Comparing bars of similar percentages from different origins is a great way to showcase the different flavor profiles that a chocolate bar can have. There are chocolate makers creating beautiful chocolates, and we don’t take anything away from them at all. They should be celebrated for turning a product with so much positive childhood association into something that can be enjoyed on a whole new level in adulthood.

But if the average person in the U.S. thinks a mass market chocolate bar is where it’s at, then maybe a 70% single origin bar isn’t where we should start to help them appreciate fine chocolate? Going back to the Starbucks example for a moment, are we shoving lattes and frappuccinos® down people’s throats when we should be meeting them where they are, with drip coffee? Especially when they’ve been happily eating milk chocolate mass market chocolate bars (i.e. drip coffee) since they were little kids?

We still need to work as an industry to drive consumers in our direction through educating them about the flavor difference and farmer benefit. But maybe making chocolate so serious, making people feel like they need a degree to enjoy it, isn’t the way to approach changing their perception of something that they associate with childhood pleasure? Perhaps they don’t care about tasting flavor notes, they just want to enjoy a chocolate bar without having to think too much about it? And perhaps in the pursuit of trying to communicate with consumers and educate them about how we are different from mass market chocolate, we’ve unintentionally alienated some customers?

There are some who might argue, “Then those people aren’t my customers”. Fair enough, that is definitely one way to look at it. But what if you COULD make those people your customers? If craft chocolate makers are to survive, they have to sell product, it’s as simple as that.

We offer this as food for thought. Lets also consider creating products that meet consumers where they are, and bring them a long on the journey with us.

Want to learn more about making delicious chocolates and confections? Check out our Professional Chocolatier Program!

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Photography by Jessica Washburn, Bliss Chocolatier and Ecole Chocolat

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