Where our food comes from and how it’s made hasn’t always been a priority. In the chocolate and cocoa industry especially, the reluctance to deal with the ethics of cocoa farming means a reported 1.56 million children are still working illegally in the international cocoa industry. In the mid-2000s, Amsterdam-based Tony’s Chocolonely was set up to tackle this injustice and it became one of the few chocolate brands with the mission of being 100% slave free.
While many heritage brands are born from a long line of confectioners, Tony’s Chocolonely’s unlikely creators were a group of journalists in Amsterdam led by Teun van der Keuken (Tony’s namesake). In 2003, the team were researching food production and supply chains for a TV show when they discovered the alarming reality of what was happening at cocoa farms in West Africa, where the majority of our cocoa (around 60%) comes from. The team wanted to speak to chocolate companies to see what could be changed, but they received no response.
So van de Keuken went a step further, turning himself into the police and asking to be arrested, and then asking a judge to convict him of driving child slavery, because he’d eaten a chocolate bar. Though the act made a big statement, much to van de Keuken’s disappointment, the judge refused to convict him.
They changed tack, and van de Keuken and the other journalists decided to change the industry from within and create their own chocolate bar. They called it Tony’s Chocolonely because it was van der Keuken’s “lonely fight against inequality in the chocolate industry”. This was in 2005, and since then Tony’s Chocolonely has gone on to become the Netherlands’ favourite chocolate brand, with 20% of the market share, and has been making major waves in the UK since it arrived in 2019.
Though van de Keuken has since stepped away from the brand, it still embodies the same values and mission as it did when it first started. To find how the brand continues to stand out from the competition, we speak to Tony’s CMO Thecla Schaeffer and Niels Heimens (founding partner of Herc, the agency that recently created the first international campaign for the brand), to find out the inspiration behind the company’s visual branding, the challenges of marketing chocolate, and why the brand will always be led by its mission.
NEW KID ON THE CHOCOLATE BLOCK
“Conveying what makes your product special or at least different from your competitors is a challenge every marketer is familiar with, regardless of the product or industry. That’s not different for chocolate, but what makes it so unique for Tony’s is the mission-driven approach to doing business, with chocolate being the means to make people aware of the issue and the solutions at hand,” explains Schaffer. “Considering how most people indulge in chocolate and how it’s marketed and positioned in the industry (like a fast moving consumer good as opposed to a luxury product) makes it extra challenging to drive issues awareness and spark the interest to change the status quo – from consumer behaviour to business practices.”
Schaffer says the questions Tony’s have had to address over the years include: “How can we tell our story and mission in an exciting and compelling way? How can we inform about the problems in chocolate without being lecturing or even patronising, but engaging and perhaps even entertaining?”
An extra challenge for Tony’s has been the influx of vague sustainability claims from other brands and consumers having to navigate the space in order to work out which brands are genuine and authentic. Tony’s Chocolonely is one of a handful of brands who can market themselves as a slave free company. Sustainable chocolate however, hasn’t garnered the same attention as sustainable clothing has for instance, so the initial task was to create something that would convince customers to pick up a bar over their usual favourite and then hit them with the mission afterwards.
The result is a visual identity that’s in your face, brightly coloured and type heavy. It’s not even obvious it’s a fair trade chocolate bar as it shakes off stereotypes of appearing overly ‘worthy’. Instead, a bar of Tony’s looks more similar to a Wonka bar from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with distinctive flavour combinations emblazoned on a yellow ribbon on each bar. All of this has been intentional of course, as the brand set out to get people talking.
“The founders decided to make the original milk chocolate bar bright red, contrary to the Dutch market custom where red means dark and blue means milk, as a symbol for the alarming situation in the cocoa industry,” explains Schaeffer. “The logo hasn’t changed over the years, but the wrapper did turn from shiny to matte.”
Another design element was to change the standard square piece format of the chocolate itself to unequally divided pieces, in order to symbolise the unequally divided cocoa supply chain. “We still get complaints about that, but it is always a great excuse to talk about what is fair,” says Schaeffer. “We also see that it has become a conversation piece between friends and family.”
These quirks help to differentiate the brand, which extends to its super friendly tone of voice and bubbly company culture, which is just as whimsical as its bars. On the Tony’s website, for instance, all the job titles of the Tony’s team have a nod to chocolate with choco consolidator, the choctopus, and choco evangelist just some of the delights to be found.
BALANCING THE FUN WITH THE MISSION
Within the frivolity and silliness is an important cause, which is why its tagline ‘Crazy about chocolate, serious about people’ is a helpful intro to the brand. “We make incredibly tasty chocolate with unexpected combinations of flavours and packed in colourful and bold wrappers, a visual explosion on every shelf – so yes, we are definitely crazy about chocolate, but more importantly, we are serious about people,” says Shaeffer. “We are changemakers and a social impact company first, and chocolate makers second, born of a hunger to revolutionise the industry and eradicate illegal child labour and modern slavery from the supply chain.”
On the company website, Tony’s mission and intentions are laid out in the form of a three-pillared road map, and a set of five rules to achieve slave-free cocoa, as well as numerous calls to action for how you the consumer can help and act, such as signing Tony’s 100% Responsibility petition. There is also a landing page laying out the brand’s impact so far, with the amount of bars sold, the number of farmers it’s working with directly and the money it’s paid in Tony’s premiums, an additional payment to the Fairtrade premium to help cocoa farmers earn a decent income and enable them to grow their businesses in an ethical way.
It’s refreshing to see a brand that’s mission-led and stands for social justice with personality, though balancing the two sides has brought its own challenges. For instance, how do you get customers to actually care about the importance of slave-free chocolate if they don’t visit the website? “Our story is told on the inside of the wrapper, but most buyers can’t control themselves to read it because of the delicious chocolate that’s waiting, right there under their nose,” admits Shaeffer.
THE MANIFESTO FILM
To overcome this issue, in September 2020 Tony’s released its first international campaign in the form of a punchy manifesto film. “We believed with the film we could really convey the story and more importantly the emotion around the brand and theme,” says Niels Heimens, founding partner and client services director at Herc, the agency behind the film. “With the music, the talent, styling and art direction, there is so much power in one minute.”
The film offers ‘100% slave free’ as a new choice for customers, rather than an added bonus, and presents Tony’s as a leader in the field. The brand is both optimistic and opinionated, which makes a change to companies talking down to us, or worse, trying to be our friend. Heimens says the brief for the film was to embody this position, but also to introduce themselves properly to an international audience.
“Although everyone in the Netherlands now knows Tony’s Chocolonely, not everyone abroad really knows the brand. Yes, they’re ‘colourful’ and have something to do with a good cause, but what is that exactly?” Heimens explains. “The brief was deceptively simple: explain the mission of Tony’s. It’s not a new mission, you can find it on their website, but you have to search for it, and read a lot. The question Thecla had was: ‘How would you tell our mission in a manifesto?’.”
The film adopts a dynamic, Afropunk aesthetic, and lays out what’s unfair about the cocoa industry in simple but powerful language. The whole thing is narrated by actor Idris Elba in a spoken word approach. “He fits the brand perfectly. His mother is from Ghana, and along with the Ivory Coast, it’s the main producer of cocoa beans,” says Heimens. “And he wanted to do it. He’s passionate about helping improve lives there, so the mission is one that really appeals to him. Plus we’re secretly a bit in love with him, Idris is in almost all our presentations – including our first presentation to Tony’s.”
As well as explaining its mission in a more immediate way, another reason why the manifesto film was an attractive move is because Tony’s does not do paid media advertisements, unlike many other confectionery brands. “We haven’t changed our media strategy [since launching]. We stick to our non-paid media policy which means that we don’t invest in advertising and the publication of content via third parties. No promoted posts, no Google ad words, no paid media whatsoever,” explains Schaeffer. “It saves a lot of money and time, but it does challenge us to be super creative. With that being said, Tony’s has always invested in content creation – in other words production – which is also something that we’ll continue to do so. Blame it on our journalistic roots to always want to share stories and news!”
Schaffer feels the film captures what Tony’s is about perfectly. “The video brings to life the concept of fair versus unfair in a globally appealing and emotional way,” she says. “We have a serious message to share, and we are always looking for creative ways of getting our message across.”
THE FUTURE OF RESPONSIBLE BRANDS
So should all brands be adopting a more responsible approach? “Brands have always had a responsibility to lead by example and drive the change they want to see in the world. To be fair, it’s not just brands, but companies, regardless of the products or services they are offering. Putting impact and people at the heart of your business should be an aspiration for everyone,” says Heimens.
“For me it’s people, cooperation and innovation, over profit and complacency. Tony’s is an example that it’s possible to be profitable and to share your wealth along the supply chain,” adds Schaeffer. “Rethinking the way we do business where no one is suffering is not an utopia but a model that we can achieve together, and only together.”
Coming up for Tony’s is its annual (Un)Fair where it invites fans, partners and retailers to make plans and get inspired. It’s digital only this year, and the hope is to entice more ‘Choco Fans’ and ‘Serious Friends’ – those who support Tony’s beyond just buying the product and following its social channels. Other future plans for Tony’s include a series of documentary-like films emphasising the importance of different perspectives and creating more international awareness both in regards to the issues in cocoa and the brand.
“Tony’s was a story first and only later became an actual product. It started out as an exploration of the issues in cocoa before the journalists decided to actually make chocolate to understand all the steps in the cocoa supply chain,” says Schaffer. “That still holds true today, we are about creating awareness and change first and selling chocolate second. The chocolate is almost the merchandise to our mission, to fund our efforts.”
This chocolatey merchandise doesn’t contain any nutritional value (despite being delicious), so the beauty of Tony’s is how it has managed to inject value of another kind. “Nothing has changed about Tony’s original mission to make 100% slave-free chocolate the norm in the industry,” says Heimens. “They’ve always wanted to create awareness for the issue, lead by example and demonstrate that things can be done differently, and, consequently, inspire others.”
As well as being a well-designed, well-packaged and well-marketed product, Tony’s makes every consumer, retailer, chocolate maker and government question the systems we currently have in place – and, more importantly, encourages us all to act.