Raw chocolate KitKats, Dark Milk, vegan bars with quinoa, and now “ruby” chocolate: The world’s biggest chocolate makers are looking for ways to keep increasingly health-conscious consumers coming back for more.
Sales of mainstream milk chocolate bars have stagnated as consumers worried about obesity and heart disease turn to snacks with less sugar and fat, or hold out for the occasional indulgent splurge on expensive, high-end chocolate.
The shift in attitudes is forcing global firms from Mars Inc. to Mondelez International to Nestle to rebrand or reformulate their mass-market chocolates to create a healthier image, or sell a more expensive premium experience.
Smoother dark chocolate bars, protein bars with chocolate, sugar-free chocolate, and single-origin chocolate are an answer to consumer demand for healthier and higher-quality bars, the companies say.
Critics of the confectionery industry say the new products are gimmicks to boost sales by giving a premium feel or a “healthy halo” to snacks still high in sugar and fat.
The companies want to find growth somewhere. The volume of confectionery products sold worldwide rose just 0.5 percent in 2016-17 after falling for two years, according to research company Euromonitor International.
“It’s going to be very difficult to persuade consumers to buy more chocolate,” said Wiebke Schoon, food analyst at Euromonitor. “But they are open to being convinced to have better chocolate, to spend more money on it.”
While the volume of chocolate sales has been largely static, the value of sales rose 3.6 percent in 2016-17, according to Euromonitor, suggesting consumers may be prepared to pay more for chocolate they believe is healthier or better quality.
“Natural, locally-sourced ingredients are and will continue to be at the heart of what people are looking for,” said Sandra Martinez, Nestle’s global head of chocolate and confectionery. “Combined with that artisan flair.”
The Swiss food giant, which sells $8.8 billion of confectionery a year, has turned to so-called chocolatories to try to turn its mass-market KitKat bar into a luxury, personalized product—with a premium price.
At boutiques in Japan, chefs conjure up creative recipes and customers can buy KitKats in more than 10 flavors including matcha, strawberry maple, and Japanese citrus.
They can also buy KitKats made from premium dark, milk, and raw—less processed—chocolate, or print a message on white chocolate bars and wrap them in custom packaging.
“It’s cool to have your name on confectionery,” said Shiho Sudo, 20, in a KitKat boutique in Tokyo, holding a trio of white chocolate wafers with her name and birthday printed in gold-colored letters. “This is a special gift for myself.”
To print a message on three KitKat wafers costs nearly 2,600 yen ($23) while a regular KitKat costs 100 yen ($0.89).
Nestle says the boutiques have been successful in taking KitKat upmarket. It is rolling out similar shops across Asia and has trialed pop-up versions in Europe with a view to making them permanent.
Rival Mondelez, which owns well-known brands such as Cadbury Dairy Milk, Cote d’Or, Milka, and Toblerone, is also looking to make mainstream products appeal to more demanding consumers.
Mondelez is trying to widen the appeal of its premium dark chocolate brand Green & Black’s by expanding in the U.S. and launching a Velvet edition in Britain that offers consumers a smoother, less bitter taste.
“It brings dark chocolate a little bit more to the mainstream,” said Mary Barnard, president of Mondelez International’s chocolate business in Europe.
While there is doubt over whether dark chocolate has health benefits, the perception it is healthier than milk chocolate has prompted a 31 percent rise in dark chocolate product launches in the past four years, according to market research firm Mintel.