It all began when  Dutch journalist Teun van de Keuken, or “Tony,” turned himself in for being a “chocolate criminal” in 2003. His crime? Paying for chocolate that used exploitative practices along the cocoa value chain. After a trial, he wasn’t found guilty of the said crime, but he made it his mission to turn chocolate into a vehicle that could spread awareness about all the things that needed to change in the cocoa industry.    

And so, in 2005, Tony’s Chocolonely was born—with its bright packaging and punchy messaging. Nearly 20 years on, little has changed about the spirit of the brand. Loud marketing stunts are still central to what it does because it turns people’s attention to the less talked-about, pressing issues.

Smart branding to take on the industry Goliaths

Take Tony’s 2021 advent calendar, for instance. The company deliberately left out the chocolate on one of the days as a way to underscore the inequality in the cocoa industry. 

That drew a lot of attention—and ire—but ultimately, achieved the purpose of alerting consumers to the core problem, Tony’s U.K. and Ireland boss Ben Greensmith told Fortune.

“It did a massive job for us in terms of raising brand awareness and issue awareness” he said. “So we rely on stunts to gain attention.” 

Tony’s approach may be different for a relatively new, unassuming chocolate maker—but the results speak for themselves. The Netherlands-based company is now a big phenomenon in its home country with about 20% of the market share, but also in the U.K., where it’s now the fourth most popular chocolate in Britain following Galaxy, Lindt and Cadbury, according to Nielsen data. In just under five years, Tonys’ turnover in the U.K. has hit £40 million ($50.5 million) and it’s the fastest growing confectionery brand in the country. The company is also reaching chocolate-lovers in the United States where they now sell at Walmart stores.

chocolates on display
Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bars organized in a store in London.

Courtesy of Tony’s Chocolonely

Tonys’ rapid growth can sometimes feel like it’s eclipsing what the brand stands for. But with a mix of smart packaging and bold campaigns, it keeps its purpose at the top of consumers’ minds. For instance, Its chocolates are unequally divided (unlike other bars which are split up in symmetric squares or rectangles) to serve as a constant reminder of the inequality that comes with sourcing cocoa.

“We’re a small player. [We] don’t have the clout, the buying power of these big chocolate companies,” Greensmith said.    

Cost challenges

Tony’s set itself apart with tongue-in-cheek marketing stunts, but it continues to face the same pains as the rest of the chocolate industry.   

The cocoa industry has been hit by both poor crop harvests and rising demand at the same time. That’s sent chocolate prices soaring as producers have passed the higher raw material costs on to consumers—and Tony’s hasn’t been spared. The chocolatier raised prices by 7% across Europe (but not in the U.K. yet—it’s unclear why), but Greensmith admits it’s been a challenge to ensure that trickles down to the farmers.

“The way that cocoa is traded… all of the money is being made by companies in the middle, and farmers are seeing none of the benefits,” the Tony’s U.K. boss said. “As any business, we have to make a profit and do the right thing.”

Another challenge, unique to Tony’s, has been a result of its bold marketing. As part of its “Sweet Solution” campaign first launched in 2021, the company introduced a string of look-alike chocolate wrappers akin to those of other recognizable big chocolate companies to raise awareness about child labor in the cocoa supply chain. The move very quickly sparked a reaction from the companies that were implicitly mimicked, which ultimately resulted in the bars being removed from U.K. supermarkets.  

But last month again, Tony’s found itself in the crosshairs of Mondelez in Germany and Austria for mimicking their packaging in one of their ad campaigns. The Dutch company is appealing the injunction, but says it stands by the cause it was trying to draw attention to. 

“We’ve got to demonstrate that we can do all these things and make a profit as well because we have to show those big chocolate companies that you can have a commercially viable proposition, make money, do the right thing, and grow a really successful chocolate company,” Greensmith explained.

In its own way, despite the stumbles, Tony’s work has helped grow issue awareness in the U.K. on the exploitative ways of the cocoa industry from 10% to 40% in five years, market research firm IPSOS found. 

Tony’s spends about 7% of its revenue on impact-related costs, including paying a higher cocoa price that helps farmers make a living income to sustain their farms. That’s why, Greensmith insists, Tony’s isn’t like the average chocolatier.

“We aren’t a chocolate company, we say that we are an impact company that makes chocolate. So the impact comes first,” he said. “It’s why we exist.”

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