Christmas shopping is officially ON!
And what could possibly be the most gifted food during this season? You guessed it: chocolate.
Bars, bonbons, treats for stockings, hot chocolate, cocoa powder, baking chips, cacao nibs. In every form and shape, chocolate is a big seller around Christmas time. Consequently, chocolate companies go all in with their advertising and marketing strategies. Offline, we are surrounded by mouth watering TV commercials, festive packages and promotional events. Online, we are fed daily newsletters, advertising banners and product placements.
There is no escaping. Whether for others or for ourselves, we are all going to buy some kind of chocolate for Christmas. But how to choose what’s worth our money?
If we don’t care about quality and we are only looking for chocolate to be mindlessly eaten, there is no need to pay much attention. But in case we want some high-quality chocolate, we must keep our brains active and our eyes wide open. Because big brands are trying EVERYTHING to make us believe that their chocolate is high-quality (which is often not the case).
To avoid falling in their marketing traps, we need to be aware of what tactics and techniques they are using. Here is how big brands trick us into buying their crappy chocolate:
1. They write countries of origin on their products.
A couple of years ago, only craft chocolate was carrying the name of the countries of origin on its packaging. Making chocolate from cacao beans, craft makers cared to specify where that flavorful cacao came from. In 2018, big chocolate brands have picked up the same habit.
Now countries like Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia are written all over the chocolate bars of even the most commercial brands. Unfortunately, the origin of a product doesn’t guarantee its quality. Because not all wine made in Italy or cheese made in France is worth the money, same goes for chocolate and the origin of its cacao. The country of origin only gives us an extra information, but it’s nowhere near to be a guarantee for quality.
2. They show pictures of farmers and cacao trees.
To prove transparency and traceability, big brands have started to insistently include pictures of farmers, cacao trees and cacao pods in their promotional material.
Their websites are now full of photos “from the farm”. They talk more on Social Media about the bean to bar process, showing pictures of cacao trees and pods. Sometimes even their products include pictures explaining where their cacao comes from and giving credit to the farmers. These images definitely have an impact on chocolate consumers. They evoke a mix of good feelings: transparency, humanity, nature, exoticism, beauty. But at the end of the day these are just nice photos, nothing more, nothing less. They have been cleverly placed there to create a sense of trust and transparency towards the brand. Especially now that it’s so trendy to show these pictures, big companies have simply jumped on the bandwagon. The reality of their cacao suppliers has often nothing to do with smiley farmers and colorful cacao pods.
3. They claim to be using simple ingredients.
The lists of ingredients in commercial chocolate have started to shorten. Consumers are more conscious and attentive than ever when they shop for food. They look for simple and clean products that won’t harm their health. Consequently, even big brands have reduced the amount of “junk” that they put in their chocolate.
“Palm-oil free”, “less sugar” and “no preservatives” are only some of the claims that they put on their packaging to appeal to health-conscious consumers. Moreover, when their list of ingredients starts to shrink, it becomes more similar to the one usually found in fine/craft chocolate products, blurring the difference between the two product categories. But consumers be aware: this doesn’t mean that the few ingredients used are high-quality. Even if a chocolate bar only states “cacao and sugar” as ingredients, this doesn’t imply that those two ingredients come from trusted and reliable sources. A short list of ingredients doesn’t always mean better ingredients.
4. They use words like “handmade”, “handcrafted” and “artisanal”.
How can a brand that distributes its products in 100+ countries do anything handmade, handcrafted or artisanal? These are some of the most abused terms in the chocolate industry. This kind of chocolate might have been artisanal or handmade when the company started its activity back in 1825 or 1930. But if it’s now in every important food chain across the globe and serves millions of chocoholics, you can bet there is no hand-filling or marble tempering involved.
Big brands use these terms on their packaging because consumers love to think that they are buying something special. They like to believe that there was a skillful chocolatier behind the scenes that took special care of those products. Unfortunately, the closest thing to a human that most supermarket bonbons have seen was probably the machine controller.
5. They show off their certifications.
Chocolate consumers still make the mistake of associating certifications to quality. Organic, Fairtrade, Gluten-Free, Vegan, B-Corporation, Rainforest Alliance. When these stickers are found on chocolate products, consumers go crazy for the “added value”. But there are two aspects to consider.
First, these certifications add value only in their area of expertise. Organic means produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. Great for the environment and the safety of the raw material. But it doesn’t mean that the cacao harvested was of fine quality or flavor. Fairtrade means that some ethical practices were put into place to take care of farmers financially. Great for the livelihood of farmers, but again this has nothing to do with the quality of the end product. Same goes for the rest of the certifications.
Second, there is a lot going on behind the scenes of these certifications that consumers are not aware of. From farmers dealing with an incredible amount of bureaucracy to corrupted cooperatives, it’s not gold all that shines.
6. They wrap their chocolate in fancy packaging.
As chocolate consumers, we are attracted by pretty designs, shiny wrappers and colorful embellishments. We eat with our eyes first, and big brands know this well. It’s during the Christmas holidays that companies put the most effort in dressing up their chocolate. Countless gift packages invade retail stores with their vibrant gold, silver, red and blue colors.
Nothing wrong with putting a gloss on Christmas products. However, we must remember not to be blinded by all this sparkle and to keep looking for the important information. Once we pass the barrier of shiny colors, we must turn the package and look at more important factors like ingredients, price, place of production, origin of raw materials and so on. In some of these commercial products, the fancy packaging ironically costs more than the product inside. Let’s pay attention!
The strategies to make a product seem high-quality are many and diversified. To defend ourselves as chocolate consumers and avoid falling in marketing traps, we can counteract with intelligence. Instead of believing fascinating stories and smart branding, here are some more objective elements we can look at and actions we can take:
- INGREDIENTS. Big brands can’t use many tricks when it comes to their ingredients’ lists. Whatever it’s inside that chocolate, it will show here, and it will be an important indication of its quality.
- PRICE. The old saying “You get what you pay for.” will never go out of style. Some products on the market might be overpriced, but on the contrary, there is no way that a cheap product can be of high-quality, no matter the fancy claims on its packaging.
- TASTING. At the end of the day, we want to buy chocolate that we like. If you have the chance, taste the product before buying it. Ask for samples or ask the opinion of people who have tried that product before.
- RESEARCH. Put on the detective hat and do your own research about the company you are thinking of buying from. You can look at their website and Social Media accounts to gather important info and get an idea of their level of transparency.
- QUESTIONS. Communicating directly with a brand is even better than listening to rumors and reviews. Try messaging the company directly and inquire for ingredients, origins and anything that you are in doubt about. Companies that have nothing to hide will gladly give you an answer.
How do you recognize high-quality chocolate?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.