Chocolate, today, is one of the most beloved treats in the world with an estimated 7.7 million tons of chocolate to be consumed in 2018/2019 alone (“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide,” Statista). However, even with such interest and demand for chocolate, the average consumer does not necessarily have any strong understanding around chocolate—from what makes certain chocolate better quality to what is a fair price for chocolate. In order to gauge a deeper understanding of what drives chocolate decisions and views, I decided to conduct a small study in Harvard Square with blind taste tests in order to get to the root of how the average consumer with no prior educational or personal experience with the chocolate industry rates and evaluates chocolate. By looking at how consumers blindly view chocolate bars and how they view chocolate packaging it will become clearer that brand stereotypes, the exploitation of certifications and labels, and the use of distinct flavors and fillings all lead the average consumer to falsely attach a certain quality or price to chocolates. It can also be argued that feeding on the surface level understandings of the average consumers could be a fruitful strategy for chocolate companies when trying to grow their brand, customer loyalty, and profitability.
Before diving into the findings of this blind chocolate taste test, it is important to set up what exactly happened during the taste test. I conducted a study involving ten people around Harvard Square who each sampled twelve unique, distinct chocolates. In my study I bought four different chocolate bars of varying flavors, price points, and qualities from three stores near Harvard Square—CVS, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. Next, I had each of the ten willing participants sample a square from each bar without knowing anything about the bars, including not seeing the packaging, and then have them detail out the flavors, texture, and quality as well as guess as to where I purchased the bar between the three stores available and how much the chocolate was worth per ounce. After detailing out the experience around eating each piece, then I would show the participants the packaging that the bar came in and have them describe the packaging as well as give them an opportunity to update their guesses on where I purchased the bar as well as the price per ounce. Finally, after this part was completed, I would then reveal where I actually purchased the bar and what the price per ounce was for the respective chocolate bar, taking note of any surprised reactions to my reveal. A list of all chocolate bars used as well as the stores they were bought at and the price per ounce for each bar are listed at the end of this blog post.
Stereotypes Around Big Chocolate Brands and Store Brands
A consistent finding throughout the process of tasting all the chocolates was that when there was a bar that had a logo pressed into the piece then that logo held a large swaying power over what the perceived quality and price of the bar was. For example, one of the chocolates sampled was a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar which has the infamous “HERSHEY’S” pressed into each bite. When the volunteers went to sample this bar and saw the logo, the reactions were immediate with people shouting that they already knew this bar and knew it would be very low quality and cheap. People guessed on average that the Hershey’s bar would value at around $0.40/ounce which—based on all the bars surveyed—would be considered incredibly cheap and lower than the $0.59/ounce it actually costs. Surprisingly, though, for such a considerably low-end, mass-produced chocolate bar, most of the participants genuinely loved the taste and “tongue-melting” quality of the texture. Overwhelmingly, the response was favorable because the bar was consistent with their expectations and past experiences. This same response followed with other well-known chocolate bars, including Cadbury and Dove. The fact that these brands are well known and branded so strongly led most participants to associate the chocolate with a lower price point and perceived lower quality, but still the flavor was desired and left people wanting more.
This response to the mass-produced chocolate bars in this study is not necessarily surprising given chocolate’s rich history. With Van Houten’s invention in 1828 “on a process for the manufacturing of a new kind of powdered chocolate with a very low-fat content,” he gave birth to the ability to bring chocolate to the masses in a cheap, low quality, fast production form (Coe and Coe, 234). The importance of this chocolate history is that for almost two centuries cheap, mass-produced chocolate has been growing in popularity and has become a common staple in most American’s lives, which is directly correlated with why the average consumer has such a positive association and appreciation for the distinct tastes of such bars. However, given the history, the average consumer also assumes that these bars are very cheap because their brands are specifically generic enough to present an affordable front. Also, interestingly, because these large chocolate companies are linked with affordability and lower quality, they are viewed to be sold at cheaper, more generic locations too. For example, for each of the bars tested that are more mass-produced (Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Dove) the overwhelming responses from taste testers was that these bars were purchased at CVS because similarly that store is also associated with more affordable products when compared to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The stereotype of the chocolate does not end at the bite of the bar but instead carries itself through the branding of any logo in the chocolate, the packaging for the bars, and even the stores that sell the chocolate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the chocolates tested that instead had unique designs in the chocolate pieces were more likely than not to be viewed as being purchased at Whole Foods because that store seems to carry the stereotype (at least amongst the participants) to be pricier and more connected to unique, well designed products and produce. In the scope of this taste test, the participants on average would guess that high quality, nicer looking bars came from Whole Foods, any decent tasting bars came from Trader Joe’s, and all generically mass-produced bars came from CVS. It became apparent that the value the average consumer attaches to the chocolate bar does not stop at the flavor and bar’s packaging but extends to where the bar is sold.
The branding these chocolate companies and the stores have crafted completely impacts customers’ responses, no matter what the reality is. For example, all participants assumed that every bar sold at Whole Foods must be expensive, but the group was shocked to learn that one of the bars tasted from Whole Foods—Chocolove’s Orange Peel—was essentially the same price per ounce as Dove’s bar from CVS. These reactions are telling of the expectations and the preconceived notions people link the stores to as well as the chocolate.
Strategic Uses of Certifications and “Earthy” Messaging
Beyond stereotyping mass-produced bars and stores based on their histories and assumed values, the use of certifications and labels as well as “earthy” messages overwhelming sway the average consumer to associate higher value to the products. In this blind chocolate tasting test, participants would frequently hold strong views and preferences after tasting some of the chocolates and sometimes rank the bars as lower quality, lower price, but these same people would then completely change their view after seeing the packaging if it had labels—such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, etc.—or was announced to be organic, vegan, etc.
For example, when the participants were sampling the Endangered Species Chocolate’s Caramel Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate bar, many of the guests absolutely despised and detested the bar because they felt it was too salty and felt cheap in quality compared to some of the other bars sampled already; however, the moment they all saw the bar’s packaging, most of the participants then associated the bar to be high quality because it has certifications that claim the product is “Non GMO Project Verified” and Fairly Traded—not to mention the wrapping claims that ten percent of the net profits are used to save the wildlife. All of a sudden a bar that was unsuccessful in this test group, considered to be bought at CVS, and guessed to be worth roughly $0.70/ounce was then shifted into a luxury bar that must have been bought at Whole Foods and priced around $1.50/ounce—which would place it in an expensive bar category. This is just one example from this taste test that illuminates the importance of perception and the use of labels and how these elements can lead to false views of the product that was just tasted and disliked.
When a product does have such certifications or labels front and center, the average consumer assumes these labels are linked with better quality and more expensive chocolate. However, when asked to the group of people involved if any of them knew what it means to be Rainforest Alliance certified or to be Fairly Traded none of them felt confident to explain what they mean but positively associate them to mean doing good. Interestingly, though, many of these certifications that were created to benefit farmers and create more clarity into the process have actually opened “the door to decrease transparency around trade terms” (Leissle, 147). So instead, the average person who does not know what such labels represent is blindly trusting that having any label means better quality. Ironically, though, even some of the mass-produced bars have labels too—with Dove claiming to be Rainforest Alliance certified and Hershey’s claiming to use farm fresh milk—yet consumers do not necessarily associate these well-known brands to be high quality, suggesting that stereotypes around brands supersede stereotypes around certifications and labels.
Similarly, bars that announced on their packaging that they were organic, no soy, vegan, etc. had a comparably positive leap in the perceptions of this test group. For example, Hu’s Cashew Butter + Pure Vanilla Bean Dark Chocolate bar (one of the overall favorites from the taste test) left the participants overly impressed after witnessing the packaging of the chocolate. This bar when blindly tasted was widely enjoyed by the participants, for they seemed to enjoy the nice complexity of flavors and unique inner filling that stood out from other bars sampled; however, even though the group already considered this bar to be valuable and high quality, there was a general lift in appreciation and value after reading the packaging: “organic house-ground cacao, vegan, paleo, no palm oil, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no emulsifiers, no soy lecithin, no vanilla extract.” The seemingly never-ending list of characterizations for the bar seemed to check off boxes the participants did not even know were there—almost setting a new standard for what should be expected of chocolate bars and food in general. With each new “no” read by the participants on the package it seemed to raise the price and quality slightly, even though the consumer could not taste the fact that these ingredients were missing—they had to be told on the wrapping. While, yes, creating a bar that checks off so many different items is most likely expensive and higher quality than a mass-produced bar, the use of presenting these feats on the packaging greatly resulted in the average consumer in this taste test increasing their price and standards—maybe falsely because none of the items presented on the packaging were things the consumers could taste or rather not taste.
Companies that take use of certifications, labels, and “earthy” messages seem to be trying to tap into a pathos and logos approach of swaying consumers into purchasing their products. Such identifiable items on the chocolate bars’ packaging more times than not successfully added more value and clout to the bars overall, whether or not the bar was actually enjoyed by the participants—suggesting that the addition of these elements might be a strong business model for producers in order to gain appreciation and profitability.
Flavors, Fillings, and Cacao
Another major finding and revelation that became prevalent during this conducted chocolate taste test was that bars that used complex flavors—such as fruits, nuts, espresso—, forms of fillings within bars, or higher percentages of cacao contents all left participants at large attributing higher qualities and higher price points to the chocolate bars whether or not they liked the bars.
With flavors, it is not that bars without any non-chocolate flavors are low-valued, but there seemed to be a common, underlying belief in this taste test that the addition of flavors must mean that the bar was more expensive than maybe expected. Interestingly, the use of flavors did not necessarily alter whether participants considered the bars to be higher quality but only dictated the pricing per ounce category. For example, Madécasse’s Sea Salt & Nibs Dark Chocolate was generally appreciated amongst guests but almost everyone was held up by the fact that there seemed to be some type of nut (which was actually nibs) in the chocolate. Even before seeing the packaging for the chocolate bar, participants already were guessing this bar was worth roughly $1.50/ounce, with many of the reasonings being the use of some type of nut that the guests assumed would have cost more.
Additionally, the participants added on a higher price per ounce for Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Chocolate Bar because of the velvety, rich inner filling filled with easily distinguishable espresso. The sharp, strong use of espresso as a filling left the participants excited by the fact that there was a filling and immediate reactions that espresso is expensive at coffee shops so it must be expensive in chocolate bars. Similarly, this notion led many of the people to also assume the bar was purchased at Whole Foods because of the strong general consensus that unique flavors must be only sold at high-end stores like Whole Foods. Ironically, history shows that the addition of fillings with different nuts or flavors was actually a great way to lower the cost of manufacturing the chocolate. This can best be seen with the Milky Way bar that had “malt-flavored nougat” as the main ingredient, allowing for the candy to be “much bigger, tasted just as chocolatey, but cost much less to produce” (Brenner, 54-55). Therefore, even though the consumer might associate fillings with higher price, they might be actually helping attribute to lower costs for the chocolate.
Finally, there was also a strong positive correlation that suggested that as the cacao contents raised in percentage so did the value and quality—claiming the product was more “natural” and “raw.” This became clear with the chocolate bar that had the highest cacao contents of any of the bars, sitting at 85% cacao. Valrhona’s Le Noir Extra Amer 85% Cacao from Trader Joe’s was considered by most in this taste test to be too dark and bitter in flavor, yet there was a unanimous agreeance that this bar must be a luxury bar sold at Whole Foods because of its clearly bitter taste that many guests assumed also meant higher cacao percentages. While they were correct in guessing this bar had high cacao percentages, the group was incorrect in estimating a price per ounce because the bar was $0.85/ounce—not the $2.00/ounce the participants were averaging in guesses.
In all three situations—whether it be non-chocolate flavors, fillings, or cacao percentage—the participants found themselves assuming that the addition of these contents must yield a higher price, yet many were very surprised to find that their assumption did not always turn out to be true. Studies have shown that people cannot actually taste any of these flavors, fillings, or cacao contents by just placing the chocolate on their tongue; instead, it is now assumed that there is “no real flavor” until one smells and sees the chocolate too (Coe and Coe, 261). Chocolate producers are taking advantage of these “neurogastronomical” researches in order to sway consumers. These additional elements in a bar, therefore, successfully fooled the average consumer in this taste test into attributing higher price and assumed value for the product, falsely swaying opinions on chocolates whether or not they were actually liked for their tastes.
What is the Take Away?
While there were a lot of great findings from the taste test that was conducted with ten people around Harvard Square with no extensive experience in the chocolate industry, this study is by no means a conclusive evaluation of how the average consumer values and experiences chocolate. However, this taste test is a chance to better evaluate how some consumers make decisions based on taste, packaging, and stereotypes.
At the end of the day, average consumers are just that, the average majority of people indulging in the chocolate bars being sold globally, and there are many falsifications that lead and sway people into attributing higher or lower quality and price points to bars—from the use of stereotypes, certifications and messaging, and flavors and contents. One general consensus was that no one could properly guess the price for any of the chocolate bars, showing that chocolate producers can maybe take advantage (and already do) of the fact that the average consumer does not have a strong background in what price different qualities of chocolate should be or is fair. The use of stereotypes, labels, and flavors all have a strong ability to falsely lead the average consumer away from the actual value of the product and instead make them willing to spend far more or far less for a product than it is actually worth.
Companies might be doing these things and playing to the fact that the average consumer does not know much because it allows for companies to grow in customer loyalty as well as dictate the pricing for each bar and grow their profits and popularity. Consumers can try to take some of the learning responsibility and conduct their own taste tests to find what types of chocolates they actually enjoy, first, then consider what the price point in reality is because often times our tasting experience or package viewing experience filter how we price and value chocolate.
Chocolates used in this Blind Taste Test
- Silky Smooth Dove: Dark Chocolate ($0.90/ounce)
- Endangered Species Chocolate: Caramel Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate (60% Cocoa) ($1.10/ounce)
- Cadbury Dairy Milk: Milk Chocolate ($0.74/ounce)
- Hershey’s: Milk Chocolate ($0.59/ounce)
- Trader Joe’s
- Trader Joe’s Organic Milk Chocolate Truffle ($0.57/ounce)
- Valrhona: Le Noir Extra Amer 85% Cacao ($0.85/ounce)
- Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Chocolate Bar ($0.66/ounce)
- Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Organic 72% Cacao Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar ($0.57/ounce)
- Whole Foods
- Chocolove XOXOX: Orange Peel in Dark Chocolate ($0.93/ounce)
- Madécasse: Sea Salt & Nibs Dark Chocolate ($1.51/ounce)
- Hu: Cashew Butter + Pure Vanilla Bean Dark Chocolate ($3.33/ounce)
- Cocoa Parlor: Into Dark 80 ($1.66/ounce)
Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World on Hershey and Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide, 2012/13-2018/19 | Statistic.” Statista, Statista, Nov. 2015, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238849/global-chocolate-consumption/.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Morris, Jelene. Hershey’s Bar with Chocolate Bloom. Wikimedia Commons, 1 October 2008, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hersheys_Bar_with_Chocolate_Bloom.jpg
All other images provided by author of this blog post.