This week, as chocolate hearts of all shapes and sizes are given and received, the chocolate industry will enjoy an annual, seasonal sales boost. But sustaining sales throughout 2012 will depend on a series of consumer trends, according to a recent webinar hosted by Cargill, Minneapolis, MN, which featured a presentation from Lu Ann Williams, head of research at Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights, on 10 chocolate consumer drivers.
The headlining trends revolved around how chocolate is perceived by consumers. “Pure” is the new natural, Ms. Williams said. “Natural products are becoming the ruler rather than the exception in most Western markets, despite ongoing issues with a clear definition of what ‘natural’ encompasses. One way around this has been marketing the ‘purity’ of a product.”
Packaging and labeling were regarded as the best communicators of product purity, especially if they epitomized product quality and simplicity with clean graphics, simple yet indulgent looking imagery and a short ingredient list.
Dovetailing with the connotation of purity was the conveyance of a product’s “green-ness.”
“Sustainable practices are not a choice anymore—consumers will take it for granted that the company is doing something,” Ms. Williams said. “2010 was the year that global product launches with ethical claims took off. There’s no single metric that applies but something must be done (i.e., reduced entry costs, ethical packaging).”
Among the factors conveying a chocolate product’s “green-ness” could be an UTZ certification to communicate the level of care given during the product’s production period. The use of Fair Trade ingredients, which continues to go mainstream, can be found at all levels of the retail chain from discount to premium products, appealing to all levels of consumers. And finally Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa has expanded into new categories, not limited to just the chocolate category. “We should see more claims in a variety of categories where chocolate is used, for example in sweet biscuit and bakery items,” Ms. Williams noted.
Taking a page from the real estate sector, location has become an important point of marketability for chocolate. “The cocoa industry was the pioneer with origin-specific chocolate varieties; consumers are very interested in where their chocolate comes from, how it’s made, how it’s sourced,” commented Ms. Williams. Similarly, she also acknowledged how marketers have continued to capitalize on a parallel consumer interest in traditional and regional foods to benefit the positioning of chocolate products—a trend that further communicates and connects a product’s authenticity to consumers.
Amid the recession and overall dip in consumer confidence, the concept of premium continues to stand out. “A premium treat can be justified as an affordable indulgence during difficult economic times, particularly if it can also encompass a better-for-you element,” Ms. Williams pointed out. She added that the top market for indulgent and premium products is the confectionery segment, followed by hot drinks and desserts/ice cream segments. “Chocolate is the big winner in these categories,” she said. “Few products convey indulgence as well as chocolate.”
The aging population is a prime focus for marketers—a trend that will continue for the next few decades. “The UN says that between 2009-2050 the number of people 60 and older will triple, reaching 2 billion people by 2050,” said Ms. Williams. “There are a lot of issues associated with that group of consumers, the biggest of which is supplemental calorie intake. When a product tastes good, compliance and consumption will increase.”
The concept of successful aging is another important area for chocolate marketability. “Dark chocolate offers a health halo,” Ms. Williams asserted. “Along with the superfruits about six or seven years ago, dark chocolate was one of the first products to promote high antioxidant content and other nutritional benefits.”
When it comes to nutritional benefits, advances in the health claims associated with chocolate have never been more at the forefront. Ms. Williams said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) health claim regulations could be an opportunity, especially as it relates to chocolate’s chief claim to fame: its antioxidant content. “There has been a greater use of scientifically proven claims across the consumer product marketplace [and] there are a lot of different ways to communicate a product’s antioxidant benefits. I don’t know if consumers understand what antioxidants do but we still see a huge number of products that have antioxidant claims on them.” She pointed to chocolate flavored children’s nutrition beverages and probiotic/prebiotic products as great examples of products that incorporate chocolate as a method to improve taste (thereby driving compliance).
But too much of a good thing is always an issue, especially in a time when rising obesity levels are being scrutinized by governments and regulators around the world. When global consumers were evicting trans fats from their diets, companies like Mars seized the opportunity to reformulate their products to cut the fat, place greater emphasis on the healthy appeal of dark chocolate, thus elevating their brand to appeal to health-conscious, label-savvy consumers.
Another emerging chocolate trend that’s difficult to measure but still growing has been the rise in niche marketing. For instance, Nestle’s Maison Cailler brand created an air of chocolate “haute couture,” by developing a profiling system consumers use to discover their “chocolate personality.” Consumers visit Maison Cailler’s website and within 48 hours of using the service, consumers will be sent a box of Masion Cailler chocolates that have been selected to match their individual preferences.
The final trend impacting chocolate has been the protein boom. Brought to the forefront by the Atkins diet fad in 2003-2004, protein is now regarded as the critical component in a weight management platform, helping promote a feeling of satiety and curbing overeating. Ms. Williams said the chocolate industry has benefitted from this trend because, as she put it, including even a small amount of chocolate in a product can improve the incidence of healthier snacking because it satisfies the sweet tooth. The same holds true for athletes: chocolate in sports nutrition beverages, bars and powders enforces dietary compliance because it tastes good.
To conclude, Ms. Williams lauded chocolate’s versatility and broad appeal. “Consumers like it and there’s so much you can do with it,” she exclaimed.