History sells—especially during a recession. Consumers look for comfort in nostalgic memories of a simpler, more secure past. And where better to find those feelings than in comfort food? At least, that’s what Mars, Inc., is hoping. The U.S. candy-maker with nearly a hundred years of history has combined its own sweet legacy with an intellectual study of chocolate’s past to deliver a treat whose recipe dates back to the revolutionary era.
Mars created the American Heritage Chocolate brand in 2006 and began selling its products to living history museums and other specialty markets. Since chocolate was historically used as a drink, the flagship product was a bag of grated chocolate ready to be brewed, but those who craved convenience as well as authenticity could purchase sticks for snacking—if they were aware of the brand at all.
Recently, the company has decided it’s time to boost American Heritage’s visibility. To build brand recognition, Mars joined the Smithsonian in hosting a history of chocolate symposium that combined academic lectures with live demonstrations. That event launched Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, a comprehensive history of chocolate funded by Mars and written by experts in the field. It also gave consumers an opportunity to sample historical chocolate and develop a taste for its complex flavor.
American Heritage Chocolate is still only available through specialty retailers. You won’t find it in your local grocery store next to the Milky Ways and M&Ms, nor can you buy it directly from the manufacturer. That adds to its aura of exclusivity and authenticity—but Mars doesn’t want exclusivity to mean obscurity. The brand’s Web site helpfully links directly to the licensed retailers’ online ordering forms.
Does it make sense to relaunch a luxury brand during a recession? It depends on the product. The previous decade saw a surge of demand for gourmet chocolates. Signs suggest that consumers are now trading down from the highest-end brands, but they still crave the dark, rich flavors to which their palettes became accustomed. It’s a question of moving from handmade artisan truffles to Ghiradelli and Lindt—not all the way back to the basic Hershey’s bar. And overall chocolate sales continue to rise. It’s a comfort consumers just can’t do without.
If Mars finds the right price point and uses its product’s historic roots to promote it as a true taste of luxury, it just might be able to capture some of that market share. After all, it feels a lot less like trading “down” when your new brand lets you taste the same flavors that George Washington and other revered founding fathers once savored. And Tea Party Protestors take note: according to Mars, “With a rebellion against tea and everything British, our forefathers proudly chose hot chocolate and coffee drinks as symbols of freedom.” That’s a powerful historical association—and one that resonates in the present day.