Premium chocolate brands have turned to PR to step up their assault on the £4bn UK chocolate market, with Thorntons, Lindt and Godiva all appointing fresh agencies in the past fortnight.
The brands' investment in PR comes as they look to continue aggressive development of new product lines while communicating more complex stories about the history, heritage and art of chocolate making.
Britons are the second-keenest chocolate-munchers in Europe, trailing only Belgians, and consumers' tastes are becoming more sophisticated.
'Consumers are becoming more aware of what they're eating and know more about the flavours of chocolate available,' says Godiva comms manager for Europe Nathalee Buelens.
She adds: 'We use PR because people need information about the products - they need to know that we are not just about nice packaging.'
For premium brands, sampling activity among journalists is ultimately the most effective PR, says Buelens.
Milly Wiggin, MD at Wiggin PR, which has just been hired to promote Godiva, adds that the brand is able to use PR to take advantage of its heritage to compete with luxury goods outside of food and chocolate as gift alternatives or self-treats.
Promoting premium brands
Philip Douty, Thorntons trading and marketing director, believes the simultaneous agency hires are indicative of strong growth at the premium end of the chocolate market. Thorntons' own appointment of Borkowski PR, however, has more to do with a fundamental change to its business strategy and objectives, says Douty.
'Twelve to 18 months ago, we identified that the two main drivers of our business would be to live up to being a specialist chocolate retailer with our stores, but also, more radically, to take the brand into wider distribution,' he says.
Borkowski's PR for Thorntons, which has more than 400 stores and cafes in the UK but is also increasing distribution through other retailers, will aim to maintain and enhance the brand's premium reputation among consumers.
Thorntons is doubling its investment in marcoms this year and will use Borkowski to handle events and viral marketing. 'Borkowski's role is communicating the art of the chocolatier,' says Douty. 'Personally, I'm uninspired by getting small column inches in stories on other people's agendas. We've featured in "tried and tested" features, but these are not remarkable - people already expect Thorntons products to taste good.'
He adds: 'We want to be on the front foot regarding what we want to say and showcasing our artistry. Because we're in a high-interest sector, the most effective way to get our message across is to stand up and shout it.'
But how do the brands plan to tackle the increasing PR flak associated with rising societal concerns about obesity?
'Most businesses give their toughest challenges to PR because it's better able to deal with the more complex issues,' says Douty, pointing to concerns over obesity and healthy eating as issues it uses PR to address. 'We'd say it's right to be concerned, but Thorntons' stance is that (the obesity issue) is about quantity not quality.'
Derek Lowe, managing director of Storm Communications, the PR agency for Swiss Delice, agrees, saying that the brand's PR aims to get across the following message: 'Eating chocolate, you feel kind of guilty, but if you're going to do it, do it with a quality product. You want to treat yourself now and again and you can have a sensual experience rather than just a guilty experience.'
Jonathan Patterson, associate director at Nexus Communications, which handles trade PR for Cadbury Trebor Bassett - the firm behind brands such as Dairy Milk and Flake - argues that mainstream products are also 'quality' and points out that the likes of his own client possess the budgets to use advertising alongside PR to reach broader targets.
Sara Tye, founder of Redhead PR, which has started work for Lindt - the third premium brand to revamp its PR - argues that PR is more suited to premium brands, where aspiration is central to marketing strategies.
Lindt's UK sales rocketed by 24 per cent in 2003, but the brand has increased its investment in PR because, Tye says, PR can position names like Lindt alongside luxury brands in titles such as Vogue or Tatler. 'PR is the best way to educate the consumer on in-depth messaging, such as Lindt's 150-year history,' she says.
Premium brands' promotional plans are often heavily reliant on new product developments. Debbie Feickert, associate director at Phipps PR, which promotes Green & Black's, agrees that new product developments help to rouse interest, but points out that PR agencies are used for more complex stories. For G&B, for instance, its positioning as an organic and ethically sourced chocolate brand gives it differentiation.
This ability to present brand stories gives premium brands an edge in trade media relations, too, because mainstream brands rarely offer much more than new packaging or design.
Taste remains the ultimate raison d'etre for premium brands, but with all chocolatiers claiming product superiority, PROs will have their work cut out to achieve message standout.