Have you tasted a Cadbury’s Creme egg recently? I have. And I can’t taste the difference between the one I ate this year, and the one I ate last year. Now maybe my taste buds aren’t refined enough to pick up the subtle changes in the taste profile (despite being a chocolate aficionado as I revealed in a previous post about Hotel Chocolat). And as any good market researcher would tell you, a qualitative study of 1 (i.e. just me) is rarely robust enough to make broad generalisations. Nevertheless the media circus surrounding Kraft’s revelation that the chocolate shell of a Cadbury’s Creme Egg is now no longer Dairy Milk chocolate but “standard cocoa mix chocolate” is bewildering to me, at least from a taste perspective. To prove how different the new Creme Egg chocolate tastes, the BBC broadcast a taste test with renowned chocolatier Paul Young to demonstrate just how dastardly Kraft had been. Yet, when you get down to it, I’d suspect that, like me, few non-professional chocolate eaters would be able to taste the difference.
So why all the fuss? Why are consumers reacting so negatively to the recipe change despite my theory that they can’t really taste the difference anyway? This story draws distinct parallels with the infamous New Coke story, in which Coke reformulated their recipe in order to compete with the supposedly “better-tasting” Pepsi, which in fact alienated their core consumers who thought it sacrilegious to change the original Coke formula. This classic marketing story (which if you don’t know can be found here) has set a premise in marketing that the recipes of well-established products with significant brand equity should not be tinkered with, for fear of a mass consumer revolt. From a marketer’s perspective, this leaves you with little room to manoeuvre if your input costs go up and squeeze your margins, or the competitor landscape changes to make your product’s ingredients less popular. The difficulty is that when the media gets wind of a change, it tends to generate a consumer backlash even if consumers themselves were otherwise unaware. Somewhat amusingly, this can take some time (case in point: Heinz reduced the salt in its HP Sauce in November 2010, but it wasn’t until September 2011 that anyone noticed.)
Why did Coke’s consumers react so negatively to New Coke, a supposedly better-tasting drink? And why, also, are consumers reacting just as negatively to the Creme Egg chocolate change? To solve this mystery, let’s look at the situation from two perspectives: through the eyes of Creme Egg manufacturer Kraft, and through the eyes of Creme Egg consumers.
From Kraft’s perspective, changing the chocolate recipe to presumably a cheaper quality chocolate than Dairy Milk lowers their costs. In order to quell any fears about potential taste changes, I imagine Kraft ran focus groups, testing the new and old recipes, and concluded that, like me, consumers can’t really tell the difference between the two and so wouldn’t mind if they changed the recipe. What a result! We can use cheaper chocolate and consumers will still buy it! (Cue much back-slapping, job-well-done-ing and a celebratory drink down the pub).
From a consumer’s perspective, the Cadbury’s Creme Egg is a treat. It is a chocolate with a strong ritual attached to it (Do you eat it whole? Do you bite the top off and lick the filling?). It is a chocolate with deeply nostalgic memories attached to childhood and the run up to Easter. It is a chocolate than, unlike most, can only be bought in the first four months of the year. This limited time sale period generates a heightened sense of anticipation and satisfaction when you eat the first Creme Egg of the season. And now you’re telling me you’ve changed the chocolate of my favourite treat. The treat I always look forward to every January and have looked forward to every January since I was a child, and OH WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LEAVE IT ALONE.
Consumers can have strong emotional attachments to iconic brands. It doesn’t really matter that they can’t taste the changes made to the chocolate, it’s the fact they know there is a difference. For them the product is now not the same as the one they have grown to love. This may demonstrate a certain irrationality, but from a brand perspective this is understandable and should not be underestimated. A brand at its essence is a promise to deliver a certain product or service, and a good brand consistently delivers on that promise time after time. Changing the chocolate breaks the consistency, weakening the promise and making consumers feel short-changed. Therefore by considering consumers as purely rational beings, rather than appreciating the irrationality arising as a result of consumer’s emotional attachment to the brand, Kraft have missed the point, explaining the current consumer backlash they are facing.
Now it’s all well and good saying that Kraft must revert back to the original recipe, maintain the status quo and not rock the boat with cost-saving recipe tweaks, and I would NOT recommend that Kraft engage in cloak-and-dagger changes without informing their customers that they are doing it. However, I appreciate that in a world of input cost fluctuations and such, it is not always feasible for Kraft and other corporations to stick to the status quo.
So what would I recommend to Kraft? Ironically, if in a few weeks they reverted back to the original Creme Egg (with the associated fanfare) they may well see a surge in demand by “giving the people what they want”. I reckon they’ll win a lot more customers in the long run by not messing around with the chocolate recipe and consider other cost-reduction strategies. Embracing the irrationality of consumers and how they react to your brand is crucial in informing a successful consumer-centric strategy.
But reducing the number of Creme Eggs in a pack from 6 to 5? A bloody disgrace.
Like what I’ve written? Disagree entirely? Good, bad and ugly, leave a comment in the comment section below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.