The Taste of Chocolate

In the context of food, and specifically chocolate, taste is not dependent on a single element. Taste can be influenced by the sensory impression that chocolate has on the body, the social implications of being able to buy and consume chocolate, the cultural norms that have been practiced for centuries, and more. Because taste has a multitude of influences, chocolate companies have been able to create a desirable taste of chocolate in the Chinese marketplace through calculated marketing strategies that consider sensory, social, and cultural elements of taste.

The complexity of taste was first brought into widespread academic discussion through sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Judged by the International Sociological Association as one of the top ten most important sociological works of the twentieth century, Distinction argues through theory and data that judgments of taste are acts of social positioning. The famous Bourdieu food space chart places foods on a graph with two axes: economic capital and cultural capital. Since the release of Distinction, there has been a wide range of discussion, each contributing and making slight adjustments to Bourdieu’s original argument and chart. Overall however, food writer Sarah Davis believes that “Bourdieu’s conceptualization of food space is still a useful tool and surprisingly up to date” (Davis 3)

Molly Watson, a food writer, has modified Bourdieu’s food space chart in an attempt to update it.
Molly Watson, a food writer, has modified Bourdieu’s food space chart in an attempt to update it.

Molly Watson, a well-published food writer, certainly agrees with Davis as she has created a modified version of Bourdieu’s food space chart. Watson has removed the specification of women’s free time and status and the rates of food and cultural consumption in addition to adding more modern American foods onto the chart. There is a constant food found in each of the four quadrants that is easiest to compare: pickles. The different types are pickles are as followed: homemade pickles (from weekend pickling workshop), “homemade” pickles (from gourmet store), homemade pickles (internet recipe), and homemade pickles (taught by grandmother). These pickles and their differences in economic and cultural capital refer to the Bourdieu’s argument that taste refers to the sense of what is good and appropriate and desirable — not just the sense of the mouth” (Davis 2). Assuming that all of these different types of pickles taste exactly the same, they still occupy different quadrant spaces. This is because the source of each of these pickles carries different economic and cultural associations. Pickles that were made from grandmother’s recipe may be heart-warming and cute, but they are in no sense refined or expensive, hence their lack of economic and cultural capital. Homemade pickles made from an online recipe are also inexpensive, but have cultural capital because the making of these pickles demonstrate independent thinking, creativity, intelligence, and an appreciation for creation. On the other hand, pickles bought from a gourmet store show no independent thinking or creativity, only that the buyer has the money to buy expensive pickles. The pickles that have both economic and cultural capital are pickles that are made from a weekend pickling workshop because they demonstrate not only intelligence and creativity, but also wealth, as food workshops are not cheap.

After analyzing pickles on Watson’s chart, we see that food does indeed carry a certain amount of economic and cultural capital. This economic and cultural capital, in addition to its sensory taste can be manipulated and taken advantage of by food producers. As a result, “taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit” (Grief 10). Chocolate companies are well aware of the manipulation of taste through its economic, cultural, and social associations, and as a competitive corporation, have used this knowledge to increase their sales of chocolate, as we will see in China.

My father, Yu Yu, was born in the city of XuYang in Guizhou province to a middle class family on New Year’s Eve, 1960. Growing up, he lived in a small three-room house, with his two parents and three siblings. Though his childhood was characterized by a lack of food, ill-funded education, and a struggling nation, his family led a relatively stable lifestyle. Throughout my father’s youth, chocolate was a luxury food; too expensive, too unavailable, and too foreign to be regularly consumed. Chocolate at the time was most commonly found along China’s ports because “the reality for British colonial-era merchants was that their wares rarely reached beyond the small foreign enclaves scattered along China’s coast” (Allen 9). The majority of China however, including my father in XuYang, was beyond the coast.

As chocolate companies made their way inland into China, they had the complete freedom and burden of creating the taste of chocolate that China would have, because “almost none of them had ever eaten a piece of chocolate. They were, to coin a phrase, “chocolate virgins,” their taste for chocolate ready to be shaped by whichever chocolate company came roaring into the country” (Allen 1). And so, the chocolate companies careful selected the associations they were to brand chocolate with, because their decision would forever determine the taste and future of chocolate in China.

Now, my father did not taste chocolate until the age of nine. Simply put, he did not like the sensory taste of chocolate. My father’s reaction was a common experience for many Chinese. His sensory dislike for chocolate can be traced back to the standard Chinese diet of grains and meat. The Chinese people, “accustomed to such a diet found the taste, texture, and particularly the sweetness of chocolate too foreign and too extreme” (Allen 27).

Sensory taste was not the way to market chocolate in China. Chocolate companies were intelligent in that they realized “globalization does not equal Westernization. Adoption and adaptation are transformative” (Martin, Lecture 13). Chocolate could not be promoted as it was in the West. In order to find success in China, chocolate companies had to find a way to “adapt” in order to be “adopted” in Chinese culture. Realizing sensory taste was not the way to market chocolate in China, companies found an intelligent and calculating marketing strategy by through economic and cultural taste.

My father did not enjoy the sensory taste of his first chocolate bar. However, he did enjoy the overall experience, simply explaining that he “did not like it, but enjoyed it overall.” An explanation can be found in the economic and cultural associations he made with his first chocolate tasting. His father, my grandfather was a government employee and made a business trip to Shanghai and Beijing, where he was gifted with chocolate. In turn, my grandfather gifted that chocolate to my father and his siblings. Though he didn’t enjoy the sensory taste of chocolate, my father was captured by the economic and cultural capitals associated with chocolate: the respect, wealth, and gift-giving nature.

For the remainder of my father’s time in China, chocolate remained a luxury food. The only time he ate it was when it was gifted to him, during business meetings or holiday seasons. He insists that though he never grew to like the sensory taste, he “enjoyed the experience of chocolate.”

In Chinese culture, gift giving plays an important role as a social facilitator, most commonly experienced during business relationships. My grandfather was gifted chocolate during his business trip, as a sign of respect to a state employee. The social associations of respect were passed along to my father when my grandfather gave the chocolates to him. Later on, when my father was of working age, he was only gifted chocolate when he and his team had done a successful job at work. By associating chocolate with cultural and thus economic (the more expensive of chocolate you’re gifted with, the more praise) capital, chocolate companies adapted to Chinese culture, and so Chinese culture adopted chocolate.

The cultural and economic capital that chocolate carries remains relevant even today. In China, chocolate is most commonly associated with gift-giving and building stronger relationships. In the advertisement by Dove above, a young Chinese man strengthens his relationship with his girlfriend through creating a love carriage made out of Dove chocolate containers. In comparison to American chocolate advertisements, this ad has no sexual or power associations. This is a result of the cultural difference between the U.S. and China: cultural capital differs across cultures. In China, Dove uses this proposal to further convince China that chocolate is the ultimate gift to show respect, love, and appreciation.

In addition to gift giving, chocolate companies have adopted other strategies of adapting the Chinese culture. For Chinese New Year 2015, Godiva intersected cultural capital and economic capital in their Lunar New Year chocolate Gift Box. Priced at an expensive $50, the Godiva chocolate gift is implied to carry economic worth. Furthermore, Godiva attempts to show cultural awareness and thus capital through its paper cutout of the Goat as box decoration. The paper cutout of the Goat is an example of jianzhi (剪纸), Chinese paper cutting. Chinese paper cutting is the oldest paper cutting art form and one of Chinese histories proudest creations. The economic and cultural capital associated with this Lunar New Year Chocolate Gift Box incentivizes the Chinese people to purchase Godiva’s products.

Godiva intersected cultural capital and economic capital in their Lunar New Year chocolate Gift Box
Godiva intersected cultural capital and economic capital in their Lunar New Year chocolate Gift Box

There is no such thing as “pure taste.” Taste is a combination of sensory taste, economic value, and cultural capital. Chocolate companies have used this truth about taste in order to optimize their marketing strategy, as seen in China. By integrating chocolate into China’s cultural norms and capital, chocolate companies have ensured the success of chocolate in China.

Primary Sources

“20 pc. Lunar New Year Chocolate Gift Box” – 2015 Goat” Godiva. Web. 5 May 2015

Lee, Kestrel. “Dove Chocolate’s Chinese Valentine’s Day campaign.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 4 May 2015.

Yu, Yu. Personal Interview. 3 May 2015

Wells, Leigh. Bourdieu’s Food Space. Watson, Molly. 2012. Web Image.

Secondary Sources

Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 4 May 2015.

Davis, Sarah. “In Good Taste.” Superfoods. Table Matters, 4 April 2013. Web. 5 May 2015.

Grief, Mark. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” Sunday Book Review. The New York Times, 12 Nov. 2010. Web. 5 May 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 11 March. 2015. Class Lecture.


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