How Better Branding Made This Premium Chocolatier Deliciously Successful

by Kim Gaskins on 01/20/2021 | 5 Minute Read

Can there ever be too many kinds of chocolate? 

Consumers don’t seem to think so—and manufacturers have responded with alacrity to their cry for more confections. During 2017, the premium chocolate segment grew 10% compared to the year before due to increased demand and a deluge of new product launches. By 2018, many established brands were struggling to defend their market share. That includes Theo Chocolate, the first organic, fair-trade, bean-to-bar manufacturer in North America. After more than a decade in the marketplace, sales had grown sluggish.

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“It’s a cluttered and competitive landscape," said Jason Harty, Chief Marketing Officer at Theo Chocolate. "Moreover, chocolate is an impulse-driven item, heavily influenced by price promotions. We make chocolate from scratch with high-quality, fair-trade ingredients, so we don’t compete to have the lowest price."

The chocolate category isn’t just a crush of competing brands—it's crammed with competing narratives, too. 

“There are narratives about saving animals, ethical labor practices, and saving the rainforest. There are narratives about love and about treating yourself. There are a lot of competing messages, and we saw an opportunity to express our brand positioning more clearly through new packaging,” explained Harty. 

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Theo Chocolate had multiple virtues they wanted to communicate, including its ethical sourcing practices, the care with which it crafts its chocolate, and its superior taste.

In late 2018, the Theo Chocolate team engaged progressive design company clarkmcdowall to lead its rebranding initiative. The agency conducted a segmentation study paired with qualitative research to understand the target consumer, the role that chocolate plays in their lives, and the existing equities Theo had to leverage. “We’re still a young, scrappy brand. We’re not a startup. We don't have the resources of a large CPG company. Investing in the right places—including doing the research upfront and having strong creative talent—ultimately made a big difference for us,” reflected Harty.

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Editorial photograph

“We asked, ‘Which were the elements that we could leave behind? Which did we want to evolve and double-down on?’ In particular, we learned a lot about how much the brand mark helped to tell Theo’s story—the natural irregularities in the letterforms communicated a sense of whimsy and joy that we wanted to retain,” said Adrienne Muken, Creative Director at clarkmcdowall. The agency left the brand mark unchanged, except for removing the coloring within and around the letters to make it more flexible.

The brand’s predominantly white packaging also proved to be a distinctive asset that helped it to stand out on the shelf—a beacon in a sea of little brown bars. “That off-white brand block is a really great device by which we can draw consumers’ eyes and get them to step a little closer to what we have to offer,” explained Harty.

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In considering what should evolve about the design, they prioritized taste appeal. “It’s got to look delicious; that’s job one. We needed clear and apparent flavor indications and immediate taste appeal,” said Harty.

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The food photography on Theo Chocolate’s original packaging indicated the flavor—such as a chocolate-dipped cherry—but sometimes shied away from showing the actual product. The new photography incorporated chocolate squares, showcasing the texture and giving consumers a preview of what they could expect upon unwrapping the bar. They also toned down the picture-perfect quality of the food. “The original photos were almost so perfect that they lost some of their realness. We wanted the new imagery to be a real representation of good ingredients, not just a stereotypical candy version where the ingredients only represent flavors,” said Muken.

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Editorial photograph

In an evaluation by Designalytics, consumers reacted more positively to the new photography and were more likely to associate attributes related to taste appeal with the new design, including “authentic taste,” “indulgent,” and “satisfies a sweet craving.”

The overall design direction that the team selected was the “big reveal,” encapsulated in a colorful, watercolor brushstroke that serves as a window into the product photography. “The food photography has a lot of personality, and it’s bursting out of this swash graphic. We take our brand mission seriously, but we wanted to make sure that we were also communicating a sense of joy and goodness,” said Emily Raffensperger, Senior Designer at Theo Chocolate, who created the unique watercolor textures by hand.

The team also revisited the typography on the packaging, eliminating the hand-written typeface in favor of a clean sans-serif. They chose to adopt a chunkier, more contemporary font for the flavor variety. To make the whole affair easier to navigate, clarkmcdowall broke up the block of claims, placing the information more strategically in different areas of the package. “We wanted to associate fair trade with the brand and tie organic more closely to the product and ingredients,” explained Harty. 

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Editorial photograph

In fall 2019, Theo Chocolate launched its new look to the delight of both consumers and retailers. “We walked into our retailers with a bit of trepidation. We were very confident in our work, but you never know what the buyer is going to say. They unanimously loved it—both the final product and the narrative of how we arrived at it. That’s significant for a brand that’s been around for 15 years and is well-embedded in the trade. It was really heartening,” recalled Harty.

Theo Chocolate promoted the new branding heavily across other marketing channels and used a brand book developed by its internal design team to guide the look and feel of these materials. “We worked retroactively, using the packaging design as our hero project and then extrapolating from there. The key elements from our packaging have now become our core brand assets, and they play out across every medium, including web, social media, and our print collateral,” said Raffensperger.

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Based on Designalytics’ consumer evaluation and the brand’s sales performance, it’s clear that shoppers are sweet on the new design. Over the past six months, Theo Chocolate’s sales have increased by 11% in the grocery channel compared to the same period during the prior year. The brand has outpaced and contributed to category growth during the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, base velocities over the past six months have increased by more than 20% in grocery and natural channels compared to the same period in 2019. 

It’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying than those results—well, except maybe one of Theo Chocolate’s new peanut butter and jelly cups.

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