When the history of capitalism is written, November 8 2016 will deserve a footnote. No, not the date the 45th president of the United States was elected, but the day Mondelez, the giant US confectionery company, changed the shape of the Toblerone bar.
This may sound hyperbolic. But the altering of Toblerone’s distinctive silhouette is the latest act of vandalism perpetrated by Mondelez on its stable of chocolate bars, and symptomatic of a wider malaise within some of the great consumer companies operating within Britain, many of which seem hell-bent on destroying the very foundations of what made them such enviable profit-making machines in the first place.
First, Toblerone. It is a slightly over-sweet, milk chocolate bar with bits of nougat bits. So far, so tasty. But what makes Toblerone distinctive is its prism shape, a row of chunky triangles that require fingers of steel to snap off. The fun of Toblerone is — as with many chocolate bars — not the taste,
but the experience of eating it: the ritual and performance of feeling the bar in your hand and breaking off a piece. The shape of a Toblerone is up there with the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy, the Coca-Cola bottle and the four-fingered Kit-Kat as something recognisable from 20 paces away. It is what makes it special.
Mondelez, the umbrella company that now owns the Kraft confectionery brands alongside Cadbury, has announced it needs to recoup increased costs of selling a Toblerone bar in the UK. This, in itself, is not the problem. Even the most ardent Brexiters would agree that an 18 per cent slide in the value of the pound vs the dollar can cause problems for an international company, buying ingredients on the global commodities markets (in dollars) and selling the finished product in the UK.
Especially after food prices have barely climbed in the last two years. The issue is how Mondelez has gone about it. Rather than just putting up the price, it has — to use the awful phrase so beloved of the food industry — ‘reengineered’ the product. It has cut its 170g bars to 150g and its 400g bars to 360g; worse, it has done this in the most cack-handed way possible. It has not made the bar a bit shorter. Instead, it has spaced the triangles out, so that the bar remains just as long, but you get these large gaps between thinner triangles. It looks mean. And, frankly, odd.
It is as idiotic as re-touching the Mona Lisa to make her look a bit less glum.
And it is the latest in a long line of decisions made by Mondelez, which suggests it does not understand why people enjoy eating their products. Earlier this year, I presented a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary about Cadbury which looked at the company since its takeover by Mondelez (then called Kraft) in 2010. What struck me, was how a company — set up by Quakers with the noble purpose of improving the lives of both its workers and its customers — could undo a century or more of goodwill in just a few years.
It’s not just the closure of a factory it promised to try to keep open, nor the axing of a gift of chocolates made to pensioners, it is the tiny little re-packaging initiatives: the rounding of the corners on a Dairy Milk, the axing of Bournville from a tub of Heroes and the changing of Roses, ditching their twist wrappers. Where’s the fun in tearing a cheap foil seal, when you’ve grown up with slowly unfurling a colourful wrapper?
Bryan Roberts, a retail analyst at TCC Global, points out that the new spaced-out Toblerone means the company ‘avoids having to produce new packaging & retool packaging automation’. Yes, it is a sensible commercial decision. But some of Britain’s greatest companies made a fortune by making people happy, not just by reengineering their cost bases.
Over the weekend, the new boss of John Lewis (another company set up with noble aims) said she wanted to ‘dial down’ haberdashery and millinery departments in favour of prosecco bars and ‘edgy’ entertainment. John Lewis has, so far, avoided the series of catastrophic decisions made by Mondelez — mostly because its unusual ownership structure means it can afford to make lower profit margins than most of its rivals, and invest in the long-term. But it has started to trim the great benefits that employees used
to enjoy and it needs to beware of becoming just another retailer.
What makes you distinctive is what makes you great in a world where people are increasingly prepared to shop around and go online. The reason that Unilever won the great Marmite war of October 2016 (even if Tesco won the initial battle), was that it had the confidence to know many consumers have a genuine emotional attachment to its brands, an attachment that takes not just a few years to nurture, but generations. Marmite, I can take or leave. But I’d be prepared to man the barricades if they started to bugger about with Colman’s mustard.
There will be plenty of people, as Mondelez will discover to its cost, who are prepared to climb the Matterhorn rather than accept the new Toblerone bar.