Next time you're in the grocery store, take a good look at the chocolate candy on the shelves. See anything different? Probably not. That's because the popular chocolates we're used to seeing have been super-sized, miniaturized and personalized. One of this season's "new" products is Raspberry M&Ms. It's the same candy shape and shell, but with a raspberry chocolate center. It's the ninth type of M&M candy available. Go to the M&Ms website and you can have your own message printed on the candy. Now that's confectionery innovation.
Things used to be different.
When the Hershey bar was introduced in 1900, something more than chocolate was under the wrapper. Over the years, the iconic chocolate bar has retained a certain candy aesthetic. There's a distinct look and feel to a Hershey bar: the thinness of the bar yielding a surprisingly rich flavor; the easily snappable pieces, each emblazoned with the eponymous candy bar's name; the satisfying texture of the chocolate derived from the ridges and engraved letters on the candy bar.
Sadly, the most recent Hershey products focus more on leveraging brand name, rather than the company's signature candy aesthetic. Consider Hershey's Drops, which were introduced in 2011. A Hershey's Drop is basically a fat M&M without the satisfying crunchy shell. The elegant candy bar has been debased, now a cluster of clunky, unwrapped chocolate discs in a resealable bag. It's a tragedy for the taste buds, a calamity in cocoa.
Hershey is not the only company guilty of selling out innovation to brand tweakery. Mars introduced miniaturized versions of its bestsellers in resealable bags in 2013. Mars makes the world's most popular candy, Snickers. Snackable Snickers are called Snickers Bites. Which means that some marketing geniuses got paid gobs of money to come up with a name that insults their client's product. Classic.
These two companies are responsible for producing the top 10 most popular chocolate brands in America. (Although I struggle with the inclusion of Hershey's Cookies 'n' Crème since it's a derivative of the Hershey bar. And Kit Kat is actually a Nestlé product licensed exclusively by Hershey in the U.S.) Just how old are the candies on this list? Most would qualify for Medicare. The most recently introduced candy is Twix, which was brought to market in 1967. That's two years before Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it has to be a tacit company edict for both Hershey and Mars. Neither organization is incented to invest in the research and development necessary to bring a new candy to market if their existing brands are such strong sellers. This candy conservatism is somewhat understandable for Mars, a privately-held company. The group is not beholden to the demands of shareholders, and can establish company goals in line with its private, internal machinations.
The Hershey Company, on the other hand, is a publicly traded company. As such, consumers have access to insights about corporate finances and activities. But the company behaves much like Mars because about 80 percent of the voting rights for The Hershey Company are held by the conservative Hershey Trust. Their objective is to preserve the Hershey brand, not put it at risk with new and unproven products.
Hershey and Mars may be making the candy, but we're eating it. Fortunately, they're not the only chocolate makers around. There are plenty of delicious choices available locally, nationally and globally. So why not ditch the McChocolate, and try something new?
If you have a chocolate shop in your town, stop by and taste the difference between fresh versus packaged chocolate. Try candies from retailers like World Market and Trader Joe's, which specialize in sourcing unique products from around the world. And if you're feeling even more adventurous, check out chocolate from two countries with their own unique candy aesthetic: Lebanon and Iceland.
Leading the way in specialty chocolate packaging is Lebanon's Patchi chocolatier. Entering the flagship shop in downtown Beirut is like walking into Tiffany's. Multi-lingual associates help guide shoppers through myriad offerings on view in covered glass cases. Sumptuous assortments of colorfully wrapped candies can be designed to order. As of now, there are no Patchi boutiques in the United States, which is a good thing for Godiva. But Patchi does ship to America. For the sake of peace and chocolate, let's hope they continue to do so.
Then there's Iceland. Icelanders love their chocolate. And one cannot talk about Iceland and candy without mentioning the Prince Polo. It's a chocolate covered wafer cookie made in Poland, with a fanatical following in the island nation. Icelanders eat it any time, day or night. There's even an Icelandic pop band, Prins Póló, named after the candy bar.
Icelanders also enjoy black licorice. Several confections combine the two, including the Draumur, which is a strip of black licorice surrounded by something akin to a Hershey bar. Perlur is a nib of black licorice surrounded by chocolate surrounded by a white crunchy coating. Both have the perfect ratio of chocolate to licorice, enabling a tactile enjoyment of the licorice that's not overpowered by chocolate flavor.
And finally, there's the Lindu Buff. The Buff is a marshmallow/taffy confection dipped in chocolate. It's a flavor and texture that is original: light, sweet and fun to eat. Unfortunately, for those hoping to enjoy the Buff outside of Iceland, it is a delicate form, sensitive to changes in pressure and temperature. The Buffs I had shipped from Iceland came out of the package as a deflated glop of chocolate-laced sticky taffy.
So word to Hershey and Mars: Start your "Buff Boosts Employment" campaigns now! Open a Buff factory in the United States and create jobs, all while expanding your revenue with the introduction of a brand new product. After all, as stated by American chocolatier Ben Strohecker, "Chocolate makes everyone smile -- even bankers."