Any lover of fine chocolate is familiar with the dilemma of standing in front of a craft chocolate display, especially those who are inclined to try new things and consider more than flavor in making a choice. “The choices in fine chocolate are almost as overwhelming as the possibilities” (Williams and Eber 2012, 145). So how do you decide? Will you grab the bar that appears to be making a social impact on the production end? Or the bar that promotes the conservation of wildlife? How about that new lemongrass and coconut bar, though? And then there’s the masterful, graphic, nuanced package design that is incredible and beautiful for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with chocolate. The wallpaper. The problem that I want to unpack here, if you will, is how consumer decisions are affected and obscured by package design and why it’s important in the world of craft chocolate. (In my references to consumers and the craft chocolate market, I am speaking specifically about that of North America and Europe.)
There’s no universal rule about what the consumer is looking for, so chocolate packaging is all over the board. The primary goal is, or at least should be, according to fine flavor chocolate manufacturers and chocolatiers, buying chocolate that tastes exceptionally good. But flavor is a perception, and an individual’s perception of flavor is affected by all of the senses, not just taste, as well as complex cognitive function (Shepherd 2012). For most consumers, this perception begins with sight and, thus, packaging. Visual cues have a profound effect on our perceived acceptability and expectation of a food, as well as the associations we have from learned and past experience (Delwiche 2012). The packaging is our first visual cue, in fact our first sensory cue in most cases, in making a decision on a bar of chocolate.
“If we turn back to the phenomena [of perception], they show us that the apprehension of a quality, just as that of size, is bound up with a whole perceptual context, and that the stimuli no longer furnish us with the indirect means we were seeking of isolating a layer of immediate impressions” (1962, 8). When we choose a chocolate bar based on our perception of the package, we’re not always able to isolate that ‘immediate impression’ from the ‘whole perceptual context’ of how good the bar will taste, what it represents, and how it actually impacts people and environment. So purveyors can leverage the power of that immediate impression of the package design to sell the idea and the anticipated gestalt of what lies within that layer.
This is not a new concept. Merleu-Ponty wrote that in 1962 and advertisers have long been aware of this reality, appealing to specific consumer bases in whatever way is most effective to them at that point in time. The success of the industrial and processed food market is a glaring example of this. In terms of the craft market, of which fine (or craft) chocolate is a part, it must be done for a slightly more discerning audience. It can be argued that designing for consumer appeal and marketability enhances the viability of a craft chocolate industry that can afford to purchase high-quality beans and support socially conscious business practices, but it also greatly increases the fetishism of chocolate and reinforces the “positive fantasy of the commodity” (Duncombe 2012, 360). Furthermore, the methods, circumstances, and governing bodies discerning what constitutes fine cacao are wrapped up in representational politics, historical narratives, market interests, and social tensions (Leissle 2013). The package design of fine and craft chocolate seems to exist on a spectrum of exoticism to localization, with a confounding dose of social justice and a decent measure of health claims in between.
Whole Foods Market came onto the grocery scene in the early 2000s with a remarkable new approach to retail food marketing – taking into account the burgeoning food movement that promoted local, sustainable, and socially conscious products in an increasingly mysterious food industry, they designed their stores to appeal not just to the gustatory pleasures of their consumers but also their liberal politics and, arguably, upscale aesthetics (Mack 2012). This new sensory design approach in grocery retail brought the firm great success – Whole Foods now has 456 stores in the United States, Canada, and the UK (Statista 2017). Chocolate packaging has undergone a similar re-design in the sense that the way in which it appeals to the gustatory, ethical, and aesthetic inclinations of the consumer. But ther is a distinct difference between chocolate and, say, the grains and dairy products sold at Whole Foods (though their sensory design approach has been criticized by Michael Pollan, who claims that the size and scale of the firm has pushed the small-scale, sustainable farmers they appear to support out of their the supply chain, Mack 2012).
Though local markets for craft and fine chocolate are growing, the great majority of craft and fine chocolate is consumed far from the places where it is produced and that production has a controversial history, which obscures consumer understanding of the impact of their choices on the production end of the value chain. But just like organic and non-GMO labels affect consumer perception of truly local products, there is a vast crop of certifications and labels (including organic and non-GMO) in chocolate that draw on consumer notions of ethics, morality, and socially conscious buying practices. These certifications are pervaded by international politics, financial inaccessibility, and general misunderstanding, and often do not have the transformative effect on producers or environment that they claim. Nonetheless, the average consumer lacks the information or experience to understand the labels and, thus, they are perceived as valuable. The obscurity of certifications has motivated producers like Taza chocolate, a chocolatier based in Somerville, MA, to create their own direct trade label and the company also publishes an annual transparency report that includes purchase prices and information about producers. The readership of that report is very low as it relates to the consumption of their product, which suggests consumers don’t seek out that information beyond the package and its labels even when it is available.
The “mythology of chocolate” has been pervasive since the early days of its popularization in Europe and is evident throughout the chocolate industry, especially as it pertains to femininity and romanticism in marketing (Robertson 2009). That mythology has extended to a whole new exoticism of the industry, using imagery, language, and semiotics to market the allure of the exotic and build that “positive fantasy of the commodity” (Duncombe 2012, 360). That fantasy includes not just the romanticized provenance and culture of cacao but also an ever-growing array of flavors, many of which are far removed from the geographic and cultural origins of cacao, all of which brings up deeply embedded issues of class, race, and otherness (Martin and Sampeck 2015).
On the other hand, there is the ‘localization’ of chocolate – a response to the food movement of recent years and the subsequent, ever-growing appeal of local foods. The know-your-farmer consumer approach doesn’t hold in the chocolate market of North American and Europe because cacao is not, in fact, a local product. Instead, the ‘localization’ of chocolate, at its core a foreign product, has been achieved through packaged farmer narratives, in the growth of single origin chocolates, an emphasis on local manufacture and craftsmanship, and the notion of terroir (Leissle 2013, 23, e.g. Williams & Eber 2012, 148, Presilla 2009). All three of those abstractions of chocolate as a ‘local’ product rely on consumer perception and the successful communication of the concept by manufacturers and chocolatiers by way of package design.
Cacao’s early association with wealth – the Mesoamericans used the beans as currency and the Spanish eagerly adopted the practice by acquiring great amounts of the valuable cacao beans, most often by unjust means – carried right over to early European consumption of chocolate. Chocolate started as a luxury commodity only accessible to the rich but, despite eventually becoming available and widely consumed by the masses, the notion of ‘richness’ in chocolate persists today (Coe and Coe 2013). Whether it’s the gold foil, the font, or a box or package that is decorative in and of itself, the package design of many a fine chocolate draws consumers in with its aesthetic representations of luxury, class, and richness.
Chocolate also has been connected to notions of health since the first Mesoamerican imbibers of chocolate celebrated the its medicinal properties in treating illness and myriad ailments. The association fit nicely into the Spanish obsession with health and they eagerly adapted cacao into their own medicinal frameworks (Coe & Coe 2013). The benefits now touted by ‘functional chocolate’ advocates are different than past iterations of ‘chocolate as medicine,’ but the notion persists in the perception of chocolate’s antioxidant properties, the benefits of flavonoids for cardiac health, the positive effects on mental and emotional health, as well as the nutritional value of raw chocolate and its adherence to increasingly common dietary restrictions (Castell, Pérez-Cano, and Bisson 2013).
Makers of craft chocolate source high-quality beans with ‘fine flavor.’ They use small-scale, traditional tools and finish the bars largely by hand. So craft chocolate is expensive. “Manufacturers and chocolatiers will tell you they follow their hearts in creating their chocolate and bonbons but too many consumers follow the herd and buy into marketing and the power of packaging” (Williams and Eber 2012, 146). Those manufacturers and chocolatiers emphasize that their primary, driving goal is great flavor and they are enthusiastic about educating the consuming public about their craft and what constitutes great flavor. Makers like the Mast brothers in Brooklyn, NY, and TCHO in Berkeley, CA, have opened their doors to chocolate lovers for tours, tastings, and flavor education. While this access does help a small batch of consumers better understand the price tag on their favorite bar of craft chocolate and identify the flavor profiles they love, the focus on flavor and craft largely dismisses the socio-political implications of chocolate. And for the makers who do incorporate that narrative into their educational endeavors, what of the consumers who don’t have access to this first-hand experience and education? It’s left to the packaging. Thus, this type of education misses a great deal of the consumer market and ‘knowing’ your chocolate becomes more a matter of cultural capital than a keen understanding of the product in all its complexity.
Williams and Eber write about the wealth of information available to consumers and claim that “consumers are becoming more educated about the origins of cacao and chocolate worldwide [as they learn] how flavor varies depending on terroir, postharvest processing, and chocolate making” but this focus on flavor and ‘craft’ obscures the crucial social and local-global implications of chocolate and the effectiveness of all that information places arguably too much responsibility on the consumer for interpreting and comprehending the market to drive their choices (2012, 161). Moreover, the consumption and enjoyment of chocolate, a ‘nonessential’ product, is hedonistic. Consumers of fine chocolate are attempting to make good choices in the midst of looking for gustatory pleasure and an intoxicating flavor experience, and the perception of the package is crucial in that moment of choice.
The demand for chocolate in general isn’t likely to subside – people report craving chocolate more than any other food item and studies have found a well of explanations and dimensions for the near-universal chocolate habit (Benton 2014). Package design in chocolate is not only confounding in the obscurity of information about chocolate, but it exploits that habit. In appealing to the socially constructed aesthetic tastes of consumers, package design further obscures the reality of cacao production, deepens the gap between producer and consumer, and perpetuates a disconnect between chocolate consumerism in capitalist societies and ongoing poverty in production areas.
All too often, “’premium chocolate’ may not be any more “fine” than the paper it’s packaged in” and the controversy and confusion around certifications, origins, cacao content, and production practices has even motivated some manufacturers and chocolatiers to leave that information off the package altogether (Williams and Eber 2012, 168). Some of those packages look more like a skilled graphic designer’s canvas than the wrapper of an actual food product. Chocolate packaging has taken on a life all its own, fully crossed over into the lifestyle and design world, and the aesthetic pursuits even carry over to the chocolate itself, with highly refined molds, coloring, and décor.
All of this is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with designing a beautiful, unique package or that the fault of the craft chocolate industry is in the design. Many, if not most, of these companies have good intentions and admirable business practices. And marketing is marketing. In their article “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” Martin and Sampeck (2015) write that “while there is much to recommend fine and craft, there is also much left to be done. In other words, the problems of the local-global divide and socially unequal state of cacao-chocolate production and consumption described throughout this essay persist in the present day, despite many of our perceived solutions” (2015, 56). In light of all this, what is the right and just way to market fine and craft chocolate that will be viable but also judiciously attend to those problems and observe the craftsmanship of fine chocolate? Can there be congruence in branding and design, good business practices, and telling genuine, impactful narratives about chocolate?
Ethical and effective package design must “avoid the pitfalls of rhetoric obscuring reality,” to borrow a phrase from Martin and Sampeck (2015). “Products have to be three-dimensional in terms of the product quality, its price, and value proposition, and the impact that it is having on the community and the rest of the world. That’s where the future is” (Christian Aschwanden as cited in Williams and Eber 2012, 171). The packaging needs to convey those dimensions of the product, and that is no easy feat when it comes to package design.
In the complexities and obscurity of the industry itself, there isn’t a simple, catch-all solution to ethical and effective package design, but purveyors who keep it simple, present understandable and supportable information, and use non-essentialized representations of plant and people seem to be on the right track, for now. But perhaps the future of chocolate packaging is a way to use today’s technology and the highly skilled designers already being employed by the chocolate industry to fill in the gaps between bean and bar – a way to communicate important information and non-binary narratives to consumers, specifically from sources without commercial investment in those narratives like Yellow Seed. But the fine chocolate industry itself may have a long way to go before that information is designable and fully digestible to chocolate lovers.
Works Cited –
Adam Mack. 2012. The Politics of Good Taste. The Senses and Society, 7(1): 87-94, DOI: 10.2752/174589312X13173255802166
Benton, David. 2014. The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving. In Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain. ed. Astrid Nehlig, 205-218. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano , and Jean-François Bisson. 2013. Chapter 19: Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview. In Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, Nutrition and Health 7. DOI 10.1007/978-1-61779-803-0_19
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2013, The True History of Chocolate: Third Edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Delwiche, Jeannine F. 2012. You Eat with Your Eyes First. Physiology & Behavior 107: 502-504.
Duncombe, Stephen. 2012. It Stand On its Head: Commodity Fetishism, Consumer Activism, and the Strategic Use of Fantasy. In Culture and Organization 18(5): 359-375. DOI: 10.1080/14759551.2012.733856
Leissle, Kristy. 2013. West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 13(3): 22-31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2013.13.3.22. Date of access, May 1, 2017.
Martin, Carla D. and Kathryn E. Sampeck. 2015. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. doi: 10.18030/SOCIO.HU.2015EN.37
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Presilla, Maricel E. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao. New York: Ten Speed Press.
Robertson, Emma. 2009. Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester; New York: Machester Universoty of Press.
Shepherd, Gordon. 2012. How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press.
Statista. 2016. Number of Stores of Whole Foods Market Worldwide from 200 to 2016. Date of Access, May 5, 2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/258682/whole-foods-markets-number-of-stores-worldwide/
Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. 2012. Raising the Bar: the Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Publishing Corporation.