Delicious Products, Admirable Sentiments, Unreal-istic Mission

Bar

Walking through Whole Foods one Sunday afternoon in Nashville, TN, two years ago, a small crowd caught my eye near the front of the store. The reason turned out to be peanut butter cups, halved and waiting on parchment paper for the avid samplers to consume. Organic and fair trade, these chocolates lacked any artificial preservatives or coloring, boasted higher protein and fiber content than any of their peers, and featured dark chocolate almond butter and coconut quinoa crunch. I recently rediscovered the Unreal brand on Facebook, thanks to an aggressive social media campaign. Additional research has confirmed that Unreal’s latest project offers a quality product that tastes as good, or better, than its competitors. The product is well worth purchasing for the taste and healthier ingredients alone, and corporate values do enhance the value of the product. However, when analyzing the founders’ claims to operate as small company in order to combat unethical sourcing and, more importantly, nutritional deficiency, it becomes clear that the lofty mission proclaimed on the website falls a bit short in practice.

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First, it is important to understand the background of the company. Viewers who open the Unreal website find a barrage of fluorescent colors and pithy slogans. One of the last pages on the website tells the well-publicized story of Unreal’s founding.[1] In a TEDx Teen talk delivered in 2013, a few months after the first iteration of Unreal products hit stores, 18-year-old Nicky Bronner delivered a 15-minute presentation about his company’s story, mission, and products. Calling his parents “junk food pirates,” Nicky shared the very marketable story of the moment that led him and his brother to set out to change the candy industry. Three years before, the 12-year-old Nicky and his 15-year-old brother, Kris, returned from trick-or-treating to have their candy confiscated from their health conscious parents. After conducting some online research to attempt to prove them wrong, the brothers found that the ingredients in their favorite candies were, in fact, damaging to health for their chemical additives and contribution to obesity. After 1,000 recipes by acclaimed Spanish chef Adam Melonas, Unreal bars launched to 25,000 stores nationwide and featured unpaid endorsements by Bill Gates, Matt Damon, Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady, and Jack Dorsey. In a very direct fashion, Nicky proclaimed that his mission is “not to sell candy, but to sell you on an idea, which is that you can change the world, because the world needs change.”[2] Coming from a gangly, nervous 18-year-old, this seems a bit heavy-handed, but his passion and enthusiasm for his product are clearly genuine.

Founder1
Co-founder Nicky Bronner with 1st edition of products (2012)

From 2013 to today, the story and the products have changed somewhat, but the mission has stood fast. Today, interviews for the company feature the CEO and CMO, who discuss product alignment and core messaging to target consumers alongside merchandizing strategies and bring-to-market plans. The initial plan targeted all stores and matched the price point of Mars and Hershey products, but the black packaging and numbered, QR-code inspired naming system deterred consumers. Simply renaming the products did not boost sales sufficiently. The company scaled back. Unreal created new recipes based on the peanut butter cups and M&M’s with trendy ingredients (ie. quinoa, coconut, almond butter), re-designed colorful packaging with a quirky style, and re-launched in 1,000 health foods stores. [3]

The chocolate itself might be tasty, but Unreal has always marketed itself as more than just another candy bar. How, then, does the corporate structure of the company compare to Hershey and Mars, two direct competitors that Unreal seeks to unseat in the marketplace? Initially, in 2012, Unreal planned to move into non-processed snacks, breakfast foods, and soda. The initial CEO John Burns, managing partner at the VC investors Raptor Consumer Partners, promoted their selection of the candy sector not due to a teenage whim but in response to a lack of innovation in the marketplace, which focused instead on product line extensions and new packaging. Raptor provided $8 million in Series A funding, and many of the stars who promoted the product have, rather than receiving compensation for their endorsement, actually invested in the company. However, far from two inquisitive, motivated teenagers creating a company from nothing, Forbes revealed that their father, Michael Bronner, was a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who funded Unreal’s first steps. Moreover, he was a family friend of the Boston-based celebrities who highlighted the brand, especially Bundchen, Brady, and Damon.[4]

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Another early backer, Bill Gates, invested in Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla’s VC firm that provided the next wave of funding for Unreal. Gates wrote on his website:

Let’s be honest. Even with better ingredients, candy is still candy. But this candy may be an example of how innovation can be successful when it creates a better product, and proves that all of the junk and high amounts of sugar in many of our most popular foods (also exported around the world) may not need to be there in the first place.[5]

Far from Nicky’s seemingly innocent comment at his TEDx Talk, “it turned out we needed money to start a company, and investors loved our mission and saw the potential to create change,” the Bronners were able to leverage their family connections to get their company off the ground. For someone who shared that he was “up for adventures of all kinds,” a teenager proud that he climbed Kilimanjaro, played tennis in Antarctica, and went skydiving in New Zealand, Nicky clearly had a rather advantageous platform for launching his company as a homeschooled boy in Boston.[6] As Bon Appetit wrote in October 2012,

But hey, slightly more healthy candy bars made by a vastly wealthy 15-year-old are still slightly more healthy candy bars—let’s just hope that his love for candy matures into a well-funded grown up passion for actually changing the world for the better. [7]

So how does Unreal compare to Hershey and Mars, two notoriously secret companies? Industry specialists have speculated that one or both of these companies may bid to buy Unreal, or copy its marketing techniques, if the brand picks up steam.[8] One Business Insider writer who grew up in Hershey, PA boasted a close personal connection to the Hershey Company. She loved the products after Unreal sent them to her for a tasting, the first in a series of promotional efforts after an additional $18.7M in funding helped the company roll out the new line of products in 2015.[9] Like Bronner, Milton Hershey founded a company at the turn of the twentieth century that always sought to go beyond providing a product for consumers. “The Hershey idea,” biographer Michael D’Antonio wrote, was “a business that would create something nobler than profit…at the very height of the progressive movement’s power.” Hershey founded a utopian community in 1904 with ready built homes and an ordered town park, which tied in his company to the local community’s economy, and Hershey bequeathed his fortune to found a philanthropic school.[10]

Mars, on the other hand, has earned renown for its intense privacy. Despite earning $33 billion in global revenue each year and 200 million consumer transactions per day, Mars maintains a nondescript world headquarters in McLean for 80 employees. Still 100% family owned without any debt, Mars boasts incredible employee loyalty, as seen through unparalleled retention rates, and ranks among the best companies to work for in the United States.[11] Both Hershey and Mars control a disproportionate share of the chocolate, and snack foods more broadly, industry. In the United States, Hershey held on to 44.1% and Mars to 29.3%, together accounting for 73.4% of the domestic market.[12] In this context, despite the significant advantages that the Bronner brothers received from their father and the funding accessible to them through his connections, Unreal is clearly trying to shake-up the industry from a weaker financial position. They deserve significant credit for this courageous move.

Companybreakdown
Segmentation of Major Consumer Product Conglomerates, Featuring Mars and Nestle (major players in the candy industry) as well as Kellogg, General Mills, Pepsico, CocaCola, and Kraft

This very structure, as an industry disruptor, has allowed Unreal to challenge the status quo for ingredients and recipes in the candy industry. First, Unreal’s pledges to be organic, fair trade, and sustainably harvested, certified gluten free and vegan. The company associates its product with “good,” opening with “good is back,” then “good never tasted better,” and finally “doing good isn’t so hard.” Declaring themselves “people people and planet people,” the company proceeds to discuss how it creates color in the M&M-like candy through vegetable dyes, uses 93% Fair Trade ingredients, and engages in sustainable sourcing of palm oil—for every hectare harvested, the supplier plants two more.[13] Organic and Fair Trade have become important trends in sustainable chocolate, in particular, over the last decade. The Fair Trade platform pledges to build:

A trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers—especially in the South. Fair trade organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.[14]

Though it is debatable whether the proceeds of fair trade benefit farmers as much as its proponents claim, both Fair Trade and Organic certifications are important steps toward improving wage and labor conditions for cacao farmers in the Third World.[15] Although these labels features prominently on the Unreal website, the company focuses less on its ethical considerations than its nutritional mission for health.[16]

Second, and most importantly for Unreal’s corporate success, the Bronner’s recognized that candy companies have not changed their recipes to reflect the medical consensus linking processed foods to obesity over the last century. The Sugar Association of lobbyists disregarded scientific evidence that sugar was poisonous and slowly killing millions of Americans. Private documents show how this turn recalls that of Big Tobacco decades earlier. Government regulations accordingly speak of sugar in vague generalities in response to industry pressure, funded by companies like Hershey and Mars through the Sugar Association. Those who testified to Congress about the wholesome nature of sugar earned millions from the very companies whose business they defended. In an industry still “facing the inexorable exposure of its product as a killer,” companies like Hershey and Mars, whose mass production model is based inherently on the addictive properties of sugar, are trying desperately to forestall such public knowledge of sugar’s true properties.[17] Scientists have conducted studies to confirm that sugar is addictive, in addition to impairing liver performance and inhibiting digestive capacity.[18] Among ancient cultures, chocolate was used in more pure forms, ground up as cacao and added to beverages intended to provide stimulation or serve ritual importance among the elite.[19] It did not have the sugar and preservatives added to candies today.

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The documentary Fed Up! explored the damage that processed foods wrought on the health of Americans and, to an increasing extent, the rest of the world that consumes our exported foods. Exposes like this provided the basic information for the Bronner’s as they created their mission. Though the McGovern Report, issued in 1979, warned that obesity would soon be the #1 form of malnutrition in the United States, the industry pegged fat as the culprit, rather than sugar. Companies replaced fat with chemicals, so raw sugar and high fructose corn syrup increased psychoanalytical tendencies toward behaviors associated with obesity. Commercials targeted children to solidify the social constructs surrounding processed foods, especially chocolate candy. When individual senators, President Bush, and First Lady Michelle Obama attempted to combat the obesity crisis in schools and in grocery stores, lobbyists paid off doctors, politicians, and companies to suppress their efforts.[20] Even the Clinton Foundation, which claimed to fight child obesity and large corporations, takes donations from The Coca-Cola Company ($5M-$10M) and The Coca-Cola Foundation ($1M-$5M). This conflict of interest undermines the forcefulness of President Clinton’s message in the documentary.[21]

Given this complicated reality, by which the close intersection between business and politics prevents concerted public health efforts to combat the obesity epidemic, how can Unreal, such a small company, despite its funding, make a difference? One of the statistics that Unreal used in its early promotional materials emphasized the troubling fact that, by 2020, 40% of Americans will be clinically obese and 50% will be diabetic. As a result, its first candy bars averaged the following, as compared to their traditional equivalents: 45% less sugar, 13% less fat, 23% less calories, 149% more protein, 250% more fiber. In addition, they registered as low Glycemic Index and avoided hydrogenated oils or synthetic colors.[22] Unreal tried to promote its status as a healthy food with initially absurd comparisons to fruit, which analysts and food bloggers aptly criticized.[23] Later efforts used Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady’s reputations as exceptionally health conscious to bolster their brand.[24] Some blogs even misinterpreted the basic nutritional facts around the candy. Vegan bloggers, for example, claimed that Unreal’s mission was “about veganizing popular candy bars” to remove “animal products and additives,” a claim far beyond what the founders intended.[25]

This reputation, however, is largely unfounded. Unreal’s nutrition comparisons are complicated by the fact that the packages were, on average, 19.4% smaller. This amplifies the value of the increased protein and fiber, but it reduces the significance of the caloric, sugar, and fat adjustments.[26] However, the primary issue at stake is that, as even Bill Gates acknowledged, Unreal is, at its core, a candy, not a health food. An early Huffington Post article that took issue with Unreal argued, “Candy is candy, not fruit, not food, not the stuff of everyday sustenance…Americans don’t need more obfuscation when it comes to food.”[27] As discussed in Fed Up!, a key issue with the obesity epidemic is that companies offer too many products and alternatives, adding more rather than taking options off the shelf.[28]

Unreal’s strong mission undercuts the corporate conglomerates like Hershey and Mars, whose reliance on the sugar industry has hampered any significant progress toward recipe change. However, replacing one dessert with a healthier version cannot rectify economic inequality or solve the magnitude of the obesity epidemic, for a candy is still a candy. For consumers seeking a treat with a little less guilt, Unreal offers a great alternative to traditional candies. For those seeking to address series ethical and medical issues, however, the solution must aim much higher and reach much further than the Unreal brand is currently capable of doing.

WORD COUNT: 2,401

End Notes

[1] “Chocolate Snacks Made Good,” Unreal Chocolate, accessed May 3, 2017, http://getunreal.com/.

[2] How to Change the World, TEDx Teen (New York, N.Y.: Scholastic Auditorium, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nd7dz0HKGb4.

[3] Abigail Watt, “Unreal Relaunches Line of Unjunked Candy,” Candy Industry, February 17, 2015, http://www.candyindustry.com/articles/86634-unreal-relaunches-line-of-unjunked-candy.

[4] Caleb Melby, “Meet UNREAL, A Natural Candy Maker Endorsed By Jack Dorsey, Matt Damon, Gisele And Tom Brady,” Forbes, September 28, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/calebmelby/2012/09/28/meet-unreal-a-natural-candy-maker-endorsed-by-jack-dorsey-matt-damon-gisele-and-her-husband/.

[5] Bill Gates, “Candy Innovation That’s Really Unreal,” Gatesnotes.com, October 26, 2012, https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Candy-Innovation-Thats-Really-Unreal.

[6] Bronner, How to Change the World (TEDx Talk).

[7] Sam Dean, “Unreal, the New Candy Made by a Super-Rich 15-Year-Old (and Promoted by Tom Brady),” Bon Appetit, October 1, 2012, http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/unreal-the-new-candy-made-by-a-super-rich-15-year-old-and-promoted-by-tom-brady.

[8] “Unreal Brand Candies – A Better Choice?,” Fooducate, January 18, 2013, http://www.fooducate.com/app#!page=post&id=57A34A73-F78C-9C05-476E-8D4F3A8DC556.

[9] Maya Kosoff, “I Tried ‘Unreal’ Peanut Butter Cups, and They Tasted Better than the Real Thing,” Business Insider, February 4, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/unreal-candy-tastes-just-like-the-real-thing-2015-2.

[10] Michael D’Antonio, Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, Reprint edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 115.

[11] David A. Kaplan, “Mars Incorporated: A Pretty Sweet Place to Work,” Fortune, accessed May 4, 2017, http://fortune.com/2013/01/17/mars-incorporated-a-pretty-sweet-place-to-work/.

[12] “U.S. Market Share of Chocolate Companies,” Statista, 2016, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238794/market-share-of-the-leading-chocolate-companies-in-the-us/.

[13] “Chocolate Snacks Made Good.”

[14] Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry, Online edition (New York: The New Press, 2014).

[15] Jack Goody, “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,” in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 3 edition (New York: Routledge, 2012), 88.

[16] As discussed during Bronner’s TEDx, How to Change the World.

[17] Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens, “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies,” Mother Jones, accessed May 4, 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign.

[18] Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel, “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32, no. 1 (2008): 20–39, doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019; for a detailed overview of additional studies, refer to “Chocolate in Health and Nutrition,” Nutrition and Health (New York: Humana Press, 2013).

[19] For a detailed history of the origins of cacoa, see Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

[20] Stephanie Soechtig, Fed Up, Documentary, (2014).

[21] “Contributor and Grantor Information,” Clinton Foundation, accessed May 4, 2017, https://www.clintonfoundation.org/contributors.

[22] Gates, “Candy Innovation That’s Really Unreal.”

[23] “Unreal Brand Candies – A Better Choice?”

[24] Sarah Shemkus, “Tom Brady Inflates Sales for Boston ‘healthy’ Candy Company,” Boston Globe, October 30, 2015, https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/10/29/tom-brady-inflates-sales-for-boston-healthy-candy-company/SqYCbLsiI7cEql2AN9tueL/story.html; Tom Brady, Watching Tom Brady Eat Halloween Candy in Slow Motion Will Be the Highlight of Your Day (Boston, MA: Brady Family Kitchen, 2016), http://people.com/food/tom-brady-unreal-candy-video-diet/.

[25] Hannah Sentenac, “Unreal Is Veganizing Popular Candy Bars; Dark Chocolate Crispy Quinoa Peanut Butter Cups Hit Stores,” Latest Vegan News, April 15, 2015, http://latestvegannews.com/unreal-is-veganizing-popular-candy-bars/.

[26] Melby, “Meet UNREAL, A Natural Candy Maker Endorsed By Jack Dorsey, Matt Damon, Gisele And Tom Brady.”

[27] Rachel Marie Stone, “The Problem With ‘Unreal’ Candy and Nutrition Facts Labels,” Huffington Post, January 15, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-marie-stone/misleading-nutrition-labels_b_2477807.html.

[28] Soechtig, Fed Up.

Works Cited

Avena, Nicole M., Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel. “Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32, no. 1 (2008): 20–39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019.

Brady, Tom. Watching Tom Brady Eat Halloween Candy in Slow Motion Will Be the Highlight of Your Day. Boston, MA: Brady Family Kitchen, 2016. http://people.com/food/tom-brady-unreal-candy-video-diet/.

“Chocolate in Health and Nutrition.” Nutrition and Health. New York: Humana Press, 2013.

“Chocolate Snacks Made Good.” Unreal Chocolate. Accessed May 3, 2017. http://getunreal.com/.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

“Contributor and Grantor Information.” Clinton Foundation. Accessed May 4, 2017. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/contributors.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Reprint edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Dean, Sam. “Unreal, the New Candy Made by a Super-Rich 15-Year-Old (and Promoted by Tom Brady).” Bon Appetit, October 1, 2012. http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/unreal-the-new-candy-made-by-a-super-rich-15-year-old-and-promoted-by-tom-brady.

Gates, Bill. “Candy Innovation That’s Really Unreal.” Gatesnotes.com, October 26, 2012. https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Candy-Innovation-Thats-Really-Unreal.

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 3 edition. New York: Routledge, 2012.

How to Change the World. TedX Teen. New York, N.Y.: Scholastic Auditorium, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nd7dz0HKGb4.

Kaplan, David A. “Mars Incorporated: A Pretty Sweet Place to Work.” Fortune. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://fortune.com/2013/01/17/mars-incorporated-a-pretty-sweet-place-to-work/.

Kosoff, Maya. “I Tried ‘Unreal’ Peanut Butter Cups, and They Tasted Better than the Real Thing.” Business Insider, February 4, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/unreal-candy-tastes-just-like-the-real-thing-2015-2.

Melby, Caleb. “Meet UNREAL, A Natural Candy Maker Endorsed By Jack Dorsey, Matt Damon, Gisele And Tom Brady.” Forbes, September 28, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/calebmelby/2012/09/28/meet-unreal-a-natural-candy-maker-endorsed-by-jack-dorsey-matt-damon-gisele-and-her-husband/.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry. Reprint edition. New York: The New Press, 2014.

Sentenac, Hannah. “Unreal Is Veganizing Popular Candy Bars; Dark Chocolate Crispy Quinoa Peanut Butter Cups Hit Stores.” Latest Vegan News, April 15, 2015. http://latestvegannews.com/unreal-is-veganizing-popular-candy-bars/.

Shemkus, Sarah. “Tom Brady Inflates Sales for Boston ‘healthy’ Candy Company.” Boston Globe. October 30, 2015. https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/10/29/tom-brady-inflates-sales-for-boston-healthy-candy-company/SqYCbLsiI7cEql2AN9tueL/story.html.

Soechtig, Stephanie. Fed Up. Documentary, 2014.

Stone, Rachel Marie. “The Problem With ‘Unreal’ Candy and Nutrition Facts Labels.” Huffington Post, January 15, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-marie-stone/misleading-nutrition-labels_b_2477807.html.

Taubes, Gary, and Cristin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones. Accessed May 4, 2017. http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign.

“Unreal Brand Candies – A Better Choice?” Fooducate, January 18, 2013. http://www.fooducate.com/app#!page=post&id=57A34A73-F78C-9C05-476E-8D4F3A8DC556.

“U.S. Market Share of Chocolate Companies.” Statista, 2016. https://www.statista.com/statistics/238794/market-share-of-the-leading-chocolate-companies-in-the-us/.

Watt, Abigail. “Unreal Relaunches Line of Unjunked Candy.” Candy Industry, February 17, 2015. http://www.candyindustry.com/articles/86634-unreal-relaunches-line-of-unjunked-candy.

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