Despite chocolate’s wide availability in Mayan culture, the European chocolate experience was much like that of the Aztecs: chocolate was mostly a drink restricted to the elite. Eventually, however, chocolate would spread to every strata of society and even to countries that previously rejected the chocolate tradition. How did chocolate win over the economies and hearts of cultures worldwide? Chocolate’s expansion beyond Europe was made possible by two factors–mechanization and culturally-relevant marketing strategies.
In the Baroque era, chocolate failed to become a popular drink outside of Europe (Clarence-Smith). Even inside Europe, chocolate had to fight for attention with tea and coffee, two other foods that were held in higher esteem. In fact, while chocolate was associated with aristocratic excess, tea and coffee were seen as drinks that represented “sobriety, serious purpose, trustworthiness, and respectability” (Clarence-Smith). Art depicting chocolate during this era reflects how chocolate was seen as part of a ritual reserved for higher-class persons, especially women (see media below). However, in areas under Spanish influence (such as the Phillipines), chocolate enjoyed a strong favoritism among the population. Yet chocolate would fail to take root as a popular food in the rest of Asia, perhaps due to the overwhelming Confucian tea tradition prevalent in East Asia.
But the mid-1800’s would see the beginnings of a revolution that would allow chocolate to be made cheaper, to be molded into unique forms, and expand beyond the higher and middle classes. The invention of conching, powdered forms of cocoa, and chocolate in bar form allowed chocolate to be made more rapidly and at a price point that was friendlier to the lower classes. At the same time, chocolate began being revered as a source of protein. “British workman cocoa houses were” being built to cater to the common laborer (Clarence-Smith) and militaries began providing chocolate bars as part of soldiers’ rations. As a result of falling prices and more diversification of chocolate forms, lower classes could afford more of the substance in chocolate’s various incarnations. Advances in transportation and a move towards closed storefronts allowed chocolate to travel intact across countries and into the hands of consumers (Goody).
Despite the lower prices for chocolate and its increasing ubiquity thanks to mechanization, markets in East Asia remained closed to chocolate companies until well into the 20th century. By this time, America was thoroughly hooked on chocolate, with even the National Confectioners’ Association running ads encouraging the daily partaking of chocolate (Martin). Mars was the first to attempt to bring this type of campaign to East Asia. Mars’ executives knew that China held an untapped chocolate market, and they decided to make a splash by using big marketing tactics. Mars’ first move was establishing a representative office in Beijing during the Asian games and sponsoring sports—which led to M&M’s becoming the official snack food of the 1990 Games.
Other chocolate companies were also eager to move into China and East Asia, and they incorporated several clever marketing strategies to fuel Asian consumers’ taste for chocolate. In the 1950’s confectioners hit upon a marketing nerve that resonated with Japanese consumers: they marketed Valentine’s Day as a chance for women to show affection towards men. For a woman to reveal her feelings towards a man was considered radical in Japanese culture at that time. Confectioners cleverly created a day where it was “acceptable” for women to express their feelings (Just Hungry). This type of marketing tapped into cultural traditions and expectations, showcasing how confectioners adapted to the culture of East Asian countries in order to make sales. Confectioners also used unique marketing strategies such as sponsoring an artist who went viral with his design for a heart-shaped carriage (Martin). By tapping into cultural mindsets and encouraging grassroots expansion, chocolatiers were able to edge into the Asian market.
Today, chocolate is finally hitting the sweet spot in Asia. Confectioners have expanded on the practice of “obligation” gift-giving in certain cultures and heavily marketed occasions where chocolate gifts are an obligatory treat. For instance, on Valentine’s Day, women in Japan are expected to give “giri chocolate” to males to whom they have no romantic feelings whatsoever, such as their bosses or mentors (Just Hungry). Marketers have gone even further and created a “White Day” where men could return the favor and gift women with chocolates and candy.
Far from being an elite food today, chocolate has crossed from the drawing rooms of Spanish and French nobility and emerged as a global product. Its entrance into East Asia was facilitated by 19th century advances in production and enabled through the use of marketing tactics that created a cultural fever for the sweet treat.
Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914. 2000. Print.
Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” 2013 (1982). Print.
Just Hungry. “The Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition of compartmentalized chocolate giving.” 8 Feb. 2016. http://justhungry.com/uniquely-japanese-valentines-day-tradition-compartmentalized-chocolate-giving. Online.
Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016. Online.