How big of a deal is the health message about chocolates with consumers today? And which messages resonate most of all?

“Our survey of consumers has found that infrequent chocolate consumers most often avoid chocolate because of concerns over sugar content,” explains Marie Loewen, research and development corporate manager-applications at Blommer Chocolate. “We also found that 56% of chocolate consumers are open to reduced and sugar-free chocolate, so sugar reduction is a message with mass appeal. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, but no matter what you choose, the flavor must be there. Taste is the key driver when buying chocolate.”

Mark Seaman, CMSA, culinary applications chef, specialties, at Barry Callebaut, points out that health messaging is extremely important to consumers today.

According to Barry Callebaut, 38% of U.S. consumers report to have followed a special diet in 2019: the most popular being high protein, low sugar, vegan, keto, and paleo.

“Barry Callebaut has heard the cry and has developed a range of products for food manufacturers as well as artisans to create new products across all segments from ice cream to bakery and pastry to casual dining,” Seaman says. “Most importantly, people want to know what they are putting into their body.”

Consumers want “real ingredients” and “no preservatives” — they want to make sure that when they choose a dessert that “it’s worth it.”

People aren’t afraid to indulge in chocolate, Seaman explains. They just want it to be “special” and “natural.” If that chocolate item answers one of the special diets mentioned above, all the better because healthy and mindful eating are here to stay, he adds.

Future growth factors

Among the greatest challenges facing the chocolate industry in driving further innovation in the North American marketplace, according to Marine Leman at Valrhona Chocolate, appears to be a very saturated market.

“Unfortunately, consumers and some chefs still focus on pricing or artificial/gimmicky chocolates to create buzz when quality, technicity and respect for the people and lands are essential components to take into account if we want this industry to be responsible and sustainable,” Leman explains. “We believe innovation should therefore be responsible and the challenge is to convince the market that’s the way to go.”

To drive further growth, there are a number of key influences to consider.

“While various trends come and go, taste will always be what keeps consumers coming back, and we know that chocolate is consistently one of the top flavors in bakery,” Loewen explains. “So, whether it is a line extension or core item, being thoughtful with your chocolate and cocoa choices can go a long way.”

Social media remains a key factor that can drive positive perceptions and demand for chocolate, Seaman says. As influencers lend their name to certain products, it shines a light on those products and opens the door to new growth in burgeoning markets, including plant-based foods and chocolates.

“Even more interesting is how the need for socializing online has reshaped celebrating together to celebrating virtually,” Seaman says, “I expect to see more new concepts launching that help people use chocolate to celebrate with each other virtually, whether it be birthday parties, showers, or even weddings.”

And more education plays a vital role in expanding sales and consumer acceptance, says Leman at Valrhona.

“We believe education for consumers is key. To do so, side by side tastings are compelling, flyers, leaflets, sampling and most importantly being selective with the brands they sell. We see that people are searching for high percentages of dark chocolates. Apparently sugar free chocolates are also on the rise. But we feel that the message that resonates the most is that the products should be good for me but for the planet too.”

As a result, alternative options, like vegan, dairy-free, and sugar-free innovations, she adds, can answer consumers’ special needs but also stimulate chefs’ imagination and creativity.

Virtual meetings

The Hershey Company, a category management and snacking leader, has developed a new capability for its retail partners that will help them stay ahead of the retail landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Hershey has announced a new virtual meeting opportunity called Hershey Insights Network (HIN) that is providing solutions for its retail partners to engage shoppers and enhance their overall experience both in-store and online. These personalized solutions are now able to be presented and discussed remotely with retail partners across the country.

“While this pandemic may have temporarily changed the way in which we meet with our retail partners, it has not changed the strong insights we have to offer our customers, which are especially crucial at this time,” says Dale Clark, senior director category management, The Hershey Company. “Our retail partners depend on this insight-driven data to help them stay ahead of the retail landscape, and this is another way we continue to adapt during this time to ensure that retailers are set up for lasting success.”

The HIN is an engaging virtual meeting experience that features the latest insights and solutions, broadcasted to retail partners in a unique and remote platform. Much like a television studio, the HIN serves as its own network, with a multi-camera studio and video switcher to ensure retail partners have a live experience unlike any other. The HIN provides leading insights, analysis and expertise that provide solutions to engage shoppers with live set merchandising and enhanced shopping experiences.

“We are going above and beyond to set up retail partners for success now and in the future,” said Clark. “It’s so important to adapt quickly to all the changes that continue to take place this year and we are proud to be a trusted partner for retailers in this evolving world, bringing them the latest insights and results with paypoint, center store, and innovation to accelerate growth.”

Since 2006, Hershey has offered its Global Customer Insights Center (GCIC) to retail partners in person in Hershey, Penn., and in 2018 announced its Mobile Customer Insights Center (MCIC), an extension of the GCIC – a 53-foot, expandable tractor trailer – that takes Hershey’s shopper insights and expertise on the road to retail partners.

While these two experiences have enabled retail partners to receive the latest insights, thought leadership and retail solutions, the new HIN will offer up the same great insights and opportunities that retailers have come to rely on – but virtually. The HIN remotely connects retail partners across the country to the GCIC environments and subject matter experts, to help ensure they continue to have the latest shopper insights and total store expertise available.