Chocolate Bars, Wrappers, and the Symbolic Marketing of Impulse Purchases

In America, and much of the Western world, chocolate bars are marketed unlike any other product. While other products and produce often come in a variety of diverse and uniquely designed and proportioned containers, candy bars are, “all basically shaped the same: small, narrow and long—bar shaped. They are contained, or wrapped in similar packaging that consists of colorfully-printed paper…They are all priced the same…They all live and compete on the same shelf” (Grager 2). Furthermore, candy bars are largely sold at the check out line at grocery and convenient stores, implicating them as “impulse purchases.” It is presumed that these items are not typically on one’s list and are to be bought on a whim right before purchase.

Candy bars are typically sold at check out counters like this, implicating them as impulse purchases: something to buy last minute before you pay and go.
Candy bars are typically sold at check out counters like this, implicating them as impulse purchases: something to buy last minute before you pay and go.

Since chocolate bars are culturally cast as last minute grabs that all exist next to one another in similarly shaped containers, candy companies must distinguish themselves from one another. Chocolate bars need to look different, and thus packaging and branding are arguably the most important elements of a candy bar. As Grager puts it, “[the] goal is not to make the product jump off the shelf, but to attract the sort of people who are likely to be interested in it and perhaps make it part of their lives” (Grager 4). Thus, in this blog post, I will deconstruct the packaging of several popular candy bars and confections to showcase how chocolate companies use different packaging strategies to appeal to appeal to different facets of the impulse buy that surrounds the Western consumption of chocolate, and ultimately argue that these products play off of deeply entrenched social and cultural tropes of nostalgia and reward to entice consumers to act upon their impulses.

Packaging is one of the most important parts of marketing as it guides the consumer to make certain assumptions and correlations about the product through its presentation. As Underwood points out, “packaging communicates brand personality via multiple structural and visual elements, including a combination of brand logo, colors, fonts, package materials, pictorials, product descriptions, shapes and other elements that provide rich brand association” (Underwood 62). By means of physical appearance, packaging can communicate everything from convenience to environmental consciousness, health, nostalgia, prestige, regional authenticity, and value. This is all due to the fact that “people buy products not only for the functional utility they provide, but also the symbolic meaning they possess” (Underwood 62). In other words, people attach meaning or “symbolism” to certain images, colors, shapes, and other visual cues, which companies then play into when they package their products.

It is important to note that individuals all ascribe their own associations to visual and interactional cues based on their own symbolistic processes, such as “overripe bananas” and “one’s grandmother’s funeral.” However, certain symbols have cultivated shared and collective meanings, such as the “peace symbol.” There is nothing inherently “peaceful” in a circle split in half with the bottom section separated into thirds, but through socialization and collective use, we have imbued this arbitrary shape with the symbolism of “peace.” As Underwood notes, “through the process of social interaction, consumers learn not only to agree on shared meaning of some symbols but also to develop idiosyncratic symbolic interpretations” (Underwood 63). Thus, it is largely through this ground swell, majority attachment via social interactions and public associations that we produce these socially unified symbols.

I argue that candy companies play off of this collective symbolism in their chocolate bar packaging and utilize three main constituent components to do so: color, sensory experience, and portion control. Color is one of the most important symbols that may in fact rely on both social conditioning and primal psychology. Market research has indicated that, “over 80 percent of visual information is related to color…color conveys information and may provide the user with some other operational benefit” (Grager 42). Even on an unconscious level, color elicits specific visceral reactions and physiological responses. For example, red speeds one’s pulse, and green slows it down (Underwood 65). Thus, companies use colors to “short-circuit consumers’ minds and induce engagement with the product through its package” (Grager 3). Color branding then melds this physiological response with collective symbolism such that certain colors have begun to take on specific cultural meanings as well. Underwood cites several examples like, “bright colors relate to detergents, whites for medicines…black and gold symbolize prestige, elegance, wealth…yellow refers to lemon in detergents, blue to peppermint, green to menthol in candy…green as environmentally friendly, less fattening” (Underwood 65).

As we can see by these array of Reese's packages, the company has stuck to a very uniform color scheme. While the format and layouts may change, they have color branded themselves with a unique orange, yellow, and black composition.
As we can see by these array of Reese’s packages, the company has stuck to a very uniform color scheme. While the format and layouts may change, they have color branded themselves with a unique orange, yellow, and black composition.

The sensory experience of the packaging also affects the symbolism we attach to the product. The entire experience of buying a candy bar is about the “desired perception” of that product, and “creating the desired perception of the product requires detailed attention to not only the package’s looks, but also how it feels in the hand and even the sounds it makes. The package’s sensory cues are an enormously important contributor to the consumer’s experience of the product” (Connolly 1). Connolly looks to sounds, textures, even tactile elements as important constituent parts to a successful package. As Grager points out, “the consumers must always be able to recognize ‘their’ brand, yet have a good feeling about their purchase” (Grager 2). In other words, symbolism in marketing is useless if it does not code for positive reactions in the consumer. Thus, the package must evoke positive memories and moods, which Connolly posits is largely based on the sensory experience, or physical interaction with the product itself.

Finally, portion control also affects how we interact with edible products, particularly impulse purchases like candy bars. While the label, texture, and sensory experience affect how we perceive the product, the wrapping and presentation can also affect how we engage with and ultimately consume it. In fact, packaging can be so influential, “that even a subtle hint seems to nudge people to stop eating” (Nassauer). Nassauer looks to “artificial barriers,” such as individually wrapped candies, partitioned cookie tins, and re-sealable bags, as a way to sway eaters to stop eating or eat more (Nassauer). While, “the urge to eat to the bottom of a bag appears to wane when a package is so large it is clearly not a single serving size,” a re-sealable bag of the same size can sway a snacker to continue gorging with the mindset that they can stop at any point and save the rest for later (Nassauer). She looks specifically as M&M’s as a “hand-to-mouth platform” that, due to its bite sized pieces, entices people to eat multiple servings in one go (Nassauer). I argue that the ways in which candy bars offer different portion control measures affects how consumers interact with the food stuff as an impulse buy.

As demonstrated in this cleverly named diagram, different portion allocations and packaging designs can affect how consumers engage with and consume the product itself.
As demonstrated in this cleverly named diagram, different portion allocations and packaging designs can affect how consumers engage with and consume the product itself.

To further interrogate candy bar marketing, I analyzed four candy bar wrappers: Twix, Reese’s, M&M’s, and Cadbury Dairy Milk Bar.

This is a selection of the candy bars I used for my packaging analysis. I argue that vending machines, like check out counters are sites of impulse purchases as well.
This is a selection of the candy bars I used for my packaging analysis. I argue that vending machines, like check out counters are sites of impulse purchases as well.

I found the first three in my college dorm vending machine, which I argue, like a check out line, is a site of impulse consumption, as college students rarely frequent vending machines as curated, premeditated consumption suppliers. I had difficultly finding the Cadbury bar, as Cadbury Dairy Milk Bars are not particularly popular chocolate bar in the United States, however, I was able to locate one at the check out counter at an independent grocery store in Porter Square.

At first glance, the Twix bar had the most straight forward packaging: simple red lettering on a metallic gold wrapper. I posit that this shiny, solid gold joint wrapper-logo is the most striking part of the bar. It is immediately evocative of an ingot of gold, referential to a prize, reward, or even payment. Thus, I posit that this simple packaging tactic is to explicitly link Twix candy bars to a sense of consumer reward. It is also interesting to note that the wrapper also advertises the product as “Cookie Bars,” plural, indicating that there are two per package. As far as portion control goes, I argue that this presents the idea that the candy bar can either be shared or eaten at the consumer’s leisure. However, without a re-sealable container, functionally, it is not likely that the consumer will save this treat long-term.

Like the Twix bar, the Reese’s cups advertises that there are two candies, that are individually wrapped. Thus, like the Twix, this packaging tactic presents the idea that the candies can be shared or enjoyed over an extended period of time, however, due to the functional side of the packaging, will likely be eaten soon after purchase. Similarly, like the Twix bar, I found the color and sensory experience highly striking as the color choice and logo were all highly evocative of collective symbolism. The color scheme is an iconic orange, black, and yellow logo under which is a jagged silhouette of a Reese’s peanut butter cup. I posit that this specific packaging choice has been curated to evoke images and memories of Halloween. The colors themselves are the ones, we, culturally, have ascribed to the fall seasons, and particularly with Halloween celebrations. They are the color of pumpkins, witches, and Jack-o-lanterns. I argue that even the iconic peanut butter cup silhouette is designed and positioned to evoke images of a crooked Jack-o-lantern smile. Thus, this candy is playing off of the nostalgia factor of the collective symbolism. Its packaging is a nod back to Halloween, a time of excitement and performativity, a space where candy is used as a treat and a site for family bonding.

It is important to note that the M&M packaging is the only candy bar wrapper with a mascot. Standing in front of a colorful kaleidoscope of blown up M&M candies is the personified M&M—a smiling, big-eyed, whimsical glove wearing figure gesturing to the package. I theorize that this tactic is to target children. The packaging is bright, explosively colorful, with an endearing cartoonish mascot that children can identify with and attach to. Because of this association, I argue that it also targets adults as it evokes nostalgic memories in adults who were captivated by this marketing tactic as children.

Finally, I posit that the Cadbury Dairy Milk Bar has been packaged to read as sophisticated and “grown up.” It is the only candy wrapper that does not have a shiny or glossy finish. Instead, the Cadbury bar has a purple matte finish with a whimsical, curlicue font, that codes for “fancy adult.” Rather than flashy or eye catching, the Cadbury bar’s simple, purple, white, and gold, packaging is supposed to feel tasteful yet understated. It is also important to note that Cadbury markets this milk chocolate bar as “Dairy Milk.” This semantic choice is referential of pastoral or fine foods. The logo also shows milk being poured from glass pitchers into the name itself, suggesting that “real milk” went into the production of this bar. Thus, it capitalized on the assumption that the candy bar is authentic and upscale. Therefore, I posit that the Cadbury Dairy Milk Bar is selling the image of luxury. Using a royal purple and gold color scheme, pastoral imagery, and an understated matte finish to present its product as classy, authentic, and “grown up.”

Through this analysis, we can see the ways in which chocolate bar packaging capitalized on the symbolic side of impulse consumerism. Companies use specific forms, shapes, textures, and images to evoke nostalgic and aspirational tropes from the consumer. It is important to note that within our particular cultural framework, particularly in the States, “buying yourself a candy bar is an event, albeit a little event; it is nevertheless, an event. When you pick up a candy bar at the checkout you are rewarding yourself” (Grager 34). At the end of the day, the impulse purchase of a candy bar is a treat and “somewhere in our psyche, still precious” (Grager 7). Thus, we still associate candy with rewards, prizes, and even fantasies. Extrapolating on this collective symbolism in packaging theory, I ultimately posit that the packaging is part of the symbolism imbued in the candy bar itself. A Cadbury bar is more than just a fancy package that makes the consumer think, “sophisticated,” “luxury,” and “authenticity.” The bar of chocolate itself becomes these things to the consumer. The chocolate beneath the purple and gold wrapper becomes the consumable representation of these symbols. Thus, the packaging is part of the candy bar, and through the act of purchase and consumption, the consumer is symbolically taking in the symbolism itself. Because the candy bar symbolizes a reward, eating a candy bar is more than just the consumption of a sweet confection, it is a form of fantasy fulfillment and projection. In buying and eating that golden twix, that cartoonish bag of M&M’s, that Halloween colored Reese’s, or that sophisticatedly packaged Cadbury bar, the consumer gets to consume and take part in that specific packaged fantasy, allowing her to be, even for just a moment, a winner, a child, a trick-or-treater, or a fancy adult.

Work Cited

Connolly, Kate B. “Food Marketers Use Food Packaging to Trigger Emotions.” Food Processing (2007): n. pag. Web. 5 May 2015.

Grager, David. Century of Candy Bars: An Analysis of Wrapper Design. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2004. Print.

Nassauer, Sarah. “Overeating: The Psychology of Small Packages.” The Wall Street Journal (2013): n. pag. Web. 5 May 2015.

Underwood, Robert L. “The Communicative Power of Product Packaging: Creating Brand Identity via Lived and Mediated Experience.” Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice 11.1 (2003): 62-76. Web. 5 May 2015.


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