When you are sizing up a chocolate bar off the supermarket shelf, your top-of-mind concern is how good will it taste. Standard brand packaging, product descriptions, and visuals also encourage you to think with your stomach.
Chocolate brands are very good at playing the brain-gut connection. They focus on eliciting positive emotions through our taste buds. And while Tony’s Chocolonely definitely does this too. This boldly colored and unapologetically outspoken brand also prompts consumers to think before they munch.
But how exactly did Tony’s Chocolonely do this? In an industry where taste matters more than anything else, it managed to build a quality brand while making sure its mission sits at the heart of its identity. And how has the brand recovered from accusations made against it in 2022 that it’s part of the problem it seeks to solve rather than a solution to it?
Let’s explore how they do it, and what you can take away to build strong brand management in this Brand Deep Dive.
Who is Tony Chocolonely?
Tony's Chocolonely is a confectionary company on a mission to rewire the cocoa industry. Or as they put in their brand statement: “Crazy about chocolate, serious about people” The company is committed to making the world’s chocolate 100% slave-free by addressing problematic workers’ conditions in the cocoa plantations — unfair compensation, exploitation, and lack of transparency on the bean origins and growing conditions.
The brand’s name is a nod to its founder, a Dutch journalist, Teun van der Keuken. “Tony” is an anglicized version of his first name, while “Chocolonely” is a nickname he took for being the lonely warrior against the inequality in the cocoa industry.
In the early 2000s, van de Keuken went on an assignment to West Africa to report on chocolate production. During his investigations, he uncovered the atrocious working conditions of local workers — below living wage compensation, modern slavery practices, and even child labor.
The pitiful state of affairs riled him to the point where he approached the local police to get arrested for eating a chocolate bar. He then demanded the local judge to convict him of supporting child slavery.
His reasoning was simple: by paying for chocolate, made from beans, harvested by under-aged workers, he too was guilty of supporting the dubious practices. While the case was dismissed, van de Keuken made a very big call-out statement and drew global attention to the issue.
But that was hardly enough for Teun. In 2005, he teamed up with other journalists to launch a fair-trade, 100% traceable, ethically sourced chocolate brand — Tony Chocolonely.
The company created a three-step roadmap for spreading the idea of 100% slave-free chocolate to the world:
Lead by example
Inspire to act
While van de Keuken later stepped away from the company, the bold approach to branding and the strong mission at the heart of its identity remains Tony’s Chocolonely signature “flavor”. Indeed, we’re seeing more and more that consumers want brands to take action on important issues and act in ethical ways. If you’re interested in this topic, make sure to read our Ultimate Guide to Conscious Consumption.
How Tony's Chocolonely Gained Global Brand Awareness
More impressive for marketers, however, is that 23% of Dutch consumers have a high brand preference for Tony's Chocolonely. Given the brand’s industry and age, that is very impressive. The chocolatier also operates in 20 other markets including the US, the UK, Belgium, and France among others with plans for further expansion.
So how did Tony's Chocoloney become so successful in increasing brand awareness? And more importantly, engaging consumers using a serious stance? We tried to break down their brand marketing efforts into several components other purpose-led brands can employ too.
1. Using a Contrarian Approach to Visual Identity and Branding
From the get-go, Tony's Chocolonely decided to forgo the standard branding playbook. Instead of making their bars blue, a signature color for milk chocolate in the Dutch market, the team went for red color. As Thecla Schaeffer, the company’s CMO explained, they wanted to use color “as a symbol for the alarming situation in the cocoa industry.”
Overall, Tony’s bars may look fun and whimsical on the outside. But the team wrapped deeper meaning in every aspect of the product design. For example, they deliberately divided the chocolate pieces asymmetrically as a cue to the inequality within the cocoa supply chain.
Source: Tony’s website
Some consumers initially complain about the bar design. But the company believes that edginess is a great “conversation starter”. And they jump on every opportunity to educate the public about their mission, both using online and offline brand marketing campaigns.
The bar wrapper is another “talking” tool in their brand identity development kit. Using compelling copy they urge the consumer to think about their company’s mission. The company also encourages everyone to join the conversation on its social media channels. That’s a great touch of omnichannel marketing.
Source: Tony’s website
2. Inviting Consumers to Talk and Act
A significant part of Tony’s brand building is driven by the team. But they also strategically leverage online customer engagement and empowerment to multiply their impact.
“We’re not a chocolate company, we’re an impact company that makes chocolate,” says the brand. In the same vein, they prompt their audiences to make an impact too, not just for their brand’s sake, but for a greater cause.
Customers are urged not only to shop but also to take action to make cocoa production more ethical. For example:
Learn more about the cocoa industry and choco production
Educate others about poor workers conditions and inequality
The above call-to-actions create positive word-of-mouth for the brand too. While ethical brands run the risk of being criticized for their shortcomings and misleading consumers which is something that this brand has certainly experienced, Tony Chocolonely remains 100% transparent about its practices and contributions to the industry. From farmer’s payouts to figures on the investigated cases of child labor, the brand layouts the full picture of their affairs in their annual reports.
Additionally, the brand hosts (Un)Fair — an annual event for fans, partners, and retailers to get together and discuss the industry, learn about the problematic causes, and have some fun too!
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3. Leveraging Unapologetic Brand Campaigning Practices
An activist-led brand, Tony still uses somewhat provocative marketing practices to drive brand awareness.
Last year, the company launched a limited edition of Sweet Solution bars — bars in wrappers mimicking the big chocos such as Twix, Toblerone, KitKat.
Source: Tony’s website
The idea was to call out some of the bigger brands on their murky sourcing practices and lack of fair compensation. Plus, gather signatures for a petition to the EU and US legislators to pressure them to address the issue of child labor. All the profits from this campaign went to 100WEEKS, a foundation that helps women in Africa to get out of poverty.
Paul Shoenmakers, Head of Impact at Tony’s, explained that their idea was to “raise awareness of the issues in chocolate and the need for human rights legislation – in a positive, upbeat, and collaborative way.”
Overall, the response among the brand’s target audience was positive. But not every customer persona for a sustainable brand will respond well to such ballsy campaigning.
For example, Considerate Conventionalists, an older eco-consumer group, aged 45-65 who live in more rural areas, tends to be against boycotting unsustainable brands or pursuing other radical actions. But they better respond to continuous education — something Tony does well.
Download the Sustainability Perception Index to find out more about sustainable consumers.
4. Focusing on Conversations on Owned Channels
Big PR moves may help generate awareness. But strategic community building improves brand affinity, consideration, and ultimately drives loyalty. Tony Chocolonely recognizes that soft power is another way to achieve impact.
Thecla Schaeffer, Tony’s CMO, says that their current focus is to “get people on board with the mission and (build) a movement of choco-fans worldwide” who’ll share the brand values and drive continuous support.
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Video marketing has been a long-time favorite medium for Tony. In 2016, they published a 1.30 hour-long investigative documentary (in Dutch) lifting the curtain on the dubious practices in the chocolate industry.
With the brand’s increased focus on the international market, the company also started releasing shorter video content for their social media and website. Fun and serious ideas blend together in the company's trademark whimsical style.
Narrated by Idris Elba, whose parents come from Ghana and Sierra Leone, the promo video explains why consumers should care about the brand mission and what they can do to support the cause.
Focus on video makes perfect sense. This medium helps distribute rich, compelling stories that forge an emotional connection with the audiences. At the same time, video consumption is on the rise. According to Wyzowl, the average person spends 2.20 hours per day watching video content online (up from 1.5 hours in 2018!). What’s more, 84% of consumers admit that a brand’s video convinced them to buy a product.
Perhaps this is why the choco brand started 2021 with a new video campaign. Tony’s Chocolloquium is a collection of short, multi-language, conversational lectures, narrated by activists from diverse industries.
The new video series hardly mention Tony’s products. But they leave a lasting impression and prompt consumers to research more about the cocoa industry and fair-trade chocolate — a road that will lead them back to Tony’s bars.
2022 Update: Supply Chain Child Labor Issues
Source: Tony's Chocoloney
On February 7th, Tony's Chocolonely released its annual report for 2020-21, which admitted to having identified 1,701 cases of child labor in its West African cocoa supply farms.
A spokesperson from Tony's told that the increase from 2019-20 report — which logged 387 incidents — is due to the "onboarding of two farming cooperatives which had child labour rates of 50% and accounted for 1,426 cases."
The Tony's spokesperson went on to explain that the reason they source from West Africa — an area with very prevalent child labor issues — is actually to encourage change. It seems as though the brand is taking Robert Frost's "the only way round is through" approach.
They continued, saying:
“We look for both problems in our supply chain and while we have never found any cases of modern slavery, we do find instances of child labour and report this in our Annual Fair Report."
Clearly, the brand is not trying to hide anything from the public, as admitting to child labor issues is not likely to endear them to modern consumers. The Tony's spokesperson went on to tell Supply Management that:
“Finding cases of child labour in your supply chain means you are taking responsibility and change is happening, which is reflected in the reduction in the prevalence of child labour at our long-term partner cooperatives.”
However, it does get a bit more complicated, as Tony's also partners with big-time cocoa processor Barry Callebaut — which was a "no brainer" for the brand.
As one of the largest chocolate makers in the world, Barry Callebaut reported 21,258 cases of child labor in its supply chain in 2020-21 — a fair bit higher than Tony's. However, Tony's positions this partnership as a way to get in at the ground level and prove to "Big Choco" that it's possible to be successful and slave-free.
However, this move still got Tony's Chocolonely removed from Slave Free Chocolate's list in 2021. Founder Ayn Riggs even went as far as to accuse Tony's of “pitching virtue to consumers” when, in fact, the brand is "completely dependent on its relationship with Barry Callebaut to make and sell chocolate which is in fact tainted by child labourers”.
Whether or not Tony's Chocolonely partnership with Barry Callebaut will make a real impact on the chocolate industry is yet to be seen. However, the brand is making good on its dedication to transparency as outlined in its mission statement.
This incident will likely increase the company’s brand awareness levels, as they’ll be making headlines for a while. And while consumers’ perception of Tony’s may be negatively or positively impacted — it will depend on the value consumers place on honesty and transparency in the face of wrongdoing.
Only time will tell how this issue develops, and we'll be following along closely.
Tony's Chocolonely perfectly balances the quality of its product with its brand mission, marrying the two together to create a memorable and distinct brand.
Funky visual identity, kitschy creative collateral, catty call-outs to competitors, and ravenous annual events are on the top layer of their branding. But looking at the inside of the “wrapper” reveals paramount levels of research, empathy, and commitment to the good cause. The topics they speak about are dire.
But by assuming a lighter tone and data-backed approach to content creation, the chocolatier manages to spread its mission to wider audience segments without sounding too patronizing.
Given the brand’s founding mission, the criticism leveled at them in 2022 suggests that it's exceptionally hard to keep your hands clean in an industry like chocolate and even harder to please everyone. But the brand’s transparent response signals an intent to continue pushing on with its mission despite the flaws that some consumers see in its strategy.