Marketing or Education?

Occasionally, while I sit at a Vietnamese restaurant, cautiously eating my standard Pho, I can’t help giggle to myself as Richard sweats and guzzles water to counteract the powerful sensations coming from his inevitably extra spicy dish. Similarly, I pass on the japapeños in Mexican cuisine and the Sriracha at Thai places. A coworker’s kid only eats food that is white and my cousins, while growing up, ate solely Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with hot dogs.

You may laugh and say that people who refrain from eating delicacies like spicy Pho, caviar, or kimchi have unsophisticated palettes. We must not know or understand the intricacies of such delicious foods. Richard may say that my Vietnamese food is bland and that I’m not gaining the full experience of these cuisines.

I would respond that I like what I like. My taste buds have their own preferences and there’s not too much I can do about that. I’m not being stubborn on purpose; I’m sure you can identify with me in having a particular taste for something that may be considered unpopular.

So, what does this have to do with chocolate?

Let’s start with the basics. What is the definition of “fine flavor cacao?” In their book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, Williams and Eber explain the definition along the lines of Justice Potter Stewart who was asked to define obscene pornographic material: “I know it when I see it.” The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative‘s objective is to identify and classify heirloom flavor to better understand fine flavor cacao and propagate it for the future.

As we’ve discussed in this post about genetics, there are a million ways to differentiate among chocolate bars. Labels like Fair Trade, Organic, and Single-Origin as well as particular ingredients like cocoa butter or flavors, and processes like stone-ground or table-tempered also differentiate among the supply.

The craft chocolate industry is suffering from a plight of its own making: our product – fine flavor chocolate bars made from the highest quality cacao in the world – is not understood or even necessarily liked by the general public. The chocolate bars that highlight the distinctive flavors of each cocoa bean and origin taste very different than the chocolate that most people grew up with. These craft chocolate bars are typically more expensive, darker, and significantly stronger than the Hershey’s or even Lindt of their youth.

What can we, in the craft chocolate industry, do about this disconnect?

We set up education campaigns! Rather than a Marketing Department, the Mast Brothers has an Education Department. Instead of convincing people to buy the chocolate, they share information about where chocolate comes from, how it is made, and why it has such different flavors from mass market chocolate. We, here at Root Chocolate, are particularly drawn to chocolate companies like Askinosie that share the history either of their company’s traditions or of their connection to the farmers abroad. In other words, taste is NOT everything to everyone.

In fact, the story of the chocolate, an understanding of the recipes and a guide to the potential flavors identifiable in each unique bar of fine flavor chocolate are the key to connecting consumers to high quality chocolate. Plus, as we’ve heard many times before, just eat more chocolate. With more chocolate tasted, the consumer will better be able to identify his or her personal preferences.

How about those of us who just like what we like?

Back to my initial story – I’m not going to start ordering the spicy curry that I dislike just because someone explains the history of Vietnamese spices and their rare availability in the world. In other words, education isn’t the silver bullet solution. Some people are going to keep eating the chocolate they are most familiar with.

In our next post on a recent chocolate tasting, you’ll noticed high marks for the relatively generic Ikea bar. Ikea likely uses a lot of cocoa butter and some soy lecithin, imitating the smooth textures and specific mouth feel of a Hershey’s bar. For some, clearly, that is more appealing than, for example, Taza’s gritty crude grind. Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolate, is quoted in Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate:

“I don’t find a lot of broad relevancy to the concept of fine flavor. I understand it. But I don’t think the consumer is thinking about that. They think about origin. They think about percentage a little big more than they used to. But ultimately they are still seeing chocolate as this sweet treat that if it’s dark it might be a little bit better and better for me and what kind of nuts does it have in it…?”

Perhaps with more knowledge of the ingredients, process, and origin, those individuals would try more exotic bars, but it’s possible that they will always prefer a smooth, lower percentage bar.

What is the bottom line?

Both the picky eaters and the craft chocolate-makers can survive in this complicated world! While I encourage people to follow my food policy – I’ll try anything once – I do not believe that everyone will be or should be a fine flavor chocolate aficionado. If you prefer Hershey’s, go for it!

On the other hand, the bean-to-bar chocolate-makers of the world should continue on our path of education rather than marketing, because there are plenty of potential converts out there. I, for one, have learned a ton about chocolate and now prefer more complex dark chocolate bars. That said, I still enjoy my sweet milk chocolate on occasion and see nothing wrong with that!

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2 thoughts on “Marketing or Education?

  1. So this means it’s still okay to put mass marketed chocolate santa’s in your Christmas stocking and not feel like I’m insulting your newly educated tastebuds!! 🙂

  2. PS  We can’t wait to taste your root chocolate creations when you come east for Christmas – and learn where each taste came from!

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