Ordinarily, Great Britain is not the first country to come to mind when thinking of chocolate. The names of Switzerland and Belgium are more likely to come up first, and then perhaps some other European countries (e.g., France, Italy, Germany, Austria). However, the British upmarket chocolatier Hotel Chocolat may deeply change our perception of Britain in association with chocolate; that is, following of course consumers’ pleasurable associations with the brand Hotel Chocolat. The brand name identifies both the company and its products (i.e., it is a ‘branded house’ of chocolate). Moreover, the company is a manufacturer as well as a retailer, offline and online, of chocolate products of multiple sorts, all under an encompassing brand, Hotel Chocolat.
Britain has been known for chocolate from companies like Cadbury and Thornton. But their products did not really succeed in raising an equivalent alternative that challenges the quality of chocolate from the better known ‘chocolate nations’. Cadbury in particular is most probably the main source for perceptions of British chocolate generated by consumers; in some of its products Cadbury blurs the distinction between true chocolate and chocolate snacks or confectionary. In 2010 the American company Kraft Foods took over Cadbury in an unfriendly maneuver; yet Kraft had a problem in swallowing the business of the acquired British company and just a year later split all of its confectionary arm including Cadbury to a new spin-off company called Mondelez International. Thornton’s already set a standard of higher quality chocolate delicacies in forms like bars and pralines. It also developed a chain of chocolate delicacy and gift shops. However, the enterprise expansion eventually ran into trouble and in 2015 the brand was acquired by the Italian giant Ferrero (well-known for ‘Ferrero Rocher’, also owner of Nutella).
Hotel Chocolat seems to be different, not merely for its positioning as an upmarket brand but in virtue of the fine feel and taste of its chocolate products — one immediately knows it is different when tasting one of the brand’s chocolate products. Drinking their hot chocolate with cocoa-flavoured cream makes a fitting complement to the pleasure of eating the solid chocolate delicacies. The experience of visiting a boutique shop of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., in Covent Garden in London, in the basement) also is an important contributor to conquering committed chocolate lovers.
Hotel Chocolat was co-founded by Angus Thirlwell, CEO of the company, and Peter Harris (Development Director). In an earlier stage of their chocolate business, the co-founders established a company named ‘Express Choc’ as an online retailer of chocolates in 1993 (no doubt an early venture in e-commerce). They opened their first physical shop in the north of London in 2004 after changing the business name — this event practically marks the initiation of the brand Hotel Chocolat.
Over the years the brand has evolved and broadened its concept and it actually extends beyond products, shops and online store (retailing) — it also includes a Tasting Club (pre-launched 1998), chocolate workshops (School of Chocolate), café-bars, a restaurant in London, and a hotel with restaurant in the Caribbean Islands. The company is proud of being a grower of cocoa for its products, a unique status for either a chocolate manufacturer or a retailer. The co-founders acquired a cocoa plantation in the Caribbean island Saint Lucia (2006), an initiative that brought Thirlwell back to his childhood in that part of the world, an origin of cocoa. In the estate of the plantation they opened their hotel (‘Boucan’) and a restaurant (2011). Their restaurant in London, established a couple of years later (2013) to bring West Indian tastes to the UK combined with modern British cuisine (e.g., ‘Slow Cooked Cacao Glazed Lamb Shank’), bears the name of the plantation and the year it was created (‘Rabot 1745’).
In an interview to BBC News, Thirlwell explained the reasoning behind the name — at start there seemed to be no logical relation to hotels. As for the choice of ‘Hotel’, Thirlwell replied: “It was aspirational. I was trying to come up with something that expressed the power that chocolate has to lift you out of your current mood and take you to a better place“, like going on vacation where one would stay at a hotel. As said above, seven years later and Thirlwell materialised the symbolic idea of Hotel into physical reality. Regarding the French wording ‘Chocolat’, he said that “everybody agreed ‘chocolat’ sounded better than chocolate”, which is hard to argue with, and added that the sound of the word almost suggests the sound of how chocolate melts in the mouth (he used the Latin term ‘onomatopoeia’) (BBC News: Business, 27 October 2014).
As reflected from his interview to the BBC, Thirlwell is a devout chocolatier, completely enthusiastic about chocolate. This impression is also supported in a personal page about Angus Thirlwell on the website of Hotel Chocolat. He continues to taste products every day and approves every recipe the company produces. A guiding principle that appears highly important to him is using more cocoa in chocolate products and less sugar. It is said that people started to crave cocoa long before anyone added a grain of sugar. This principle was practised, for example, in a product called ‘Supermilk’ that contains 65% cocoa, emphasises the ‘smooth creaminess of milk’, and includes less sugar than a dark chocolate — a feel of milk chocolate that is nearly a dark chocolate. In ‘Our Story’ webpage, Hotel Chocolat laments the overemphasis on sweetness in British chocolate: “Today, sugar is 20 times cheaper than cocoa, and a typical bar of milk chocolate contains more than twice as much sugar as cocoa”. Conversely, the mantra of Hotel Chocolat is explicitly: ‘More Cocoa, Less Sugar’.
A notion of this motto is felt very present indeed in a number of chocolate products of Hotel Chocolat, and it is probably at the root of the magic of their chocolate, and their business success. Just for instance, take their chocolate shells filled with Salted Caramel Cream, or Orange Tangs (orange-filled chocolate sticks) that are truly special and delicious (based on the author’s experience). It is all about the pleasure of eating genuine and fine-flavoured chocolate.
Formally, according to the website of Hotel Chocolat, the company operates 93 shops as well as cafés and restaurants. The Telegraph (24 January 2018) tells us that in the weeks running to Christmas 2017 and New Year of 2018 Hotel Chocolat opened ten new shops, bringing their total number to 100 across the UK. The store locator on the website (provided with an interactive map) suggests, however, that the company may have an even larger number of establishments in the UK — 153 locations are designated as ’boutique’ (shops). There are specifically 26 locations of café-bars, and the restaurant in London. It should be noted that café-bars are mostly (or always) integrated with shops, and Rabot 1745 is a complex including the restaurant, shop and café-bar. The brand is also represented in concessions (51 in total). The conflicting numbers are confusing and make it hard to determine the true current number of outlets of the company (could be a result of duplication in the counts of location types in ‘Our Locations’, apparently mainly due to concessions counted as boutique shops). Hotel Chocolat also has two stores in Copenhagen, Denmark, and several outlets in Ireland (seem to function mostly as concessions).
- The revenue of Hotel Chocolat Group in the financial year 07/2016-06/2017 amounted to £105.24 million, an increase of 15.5% year-on-year; the net income in that period was £8.76m, an impressive rise of 114.6% year-on-year.
- Hotel Chocolat Group was incorporated in 2013 and is listed on the London Stock Exchange since 2014 (the founders exchanged a third of their holdings for cash, receiving each about £20m, while in total raising £55m).
- In the past six months the share price shifted between 240p and 380p, standing in late January ’18 at 333p; market capitalization: £375.5m.
Source: FT.com, (Market Data)
Sales received a lift of 15% during the 13 weeks to 31 December 2017, attributed mostly to a special package in advance of Christmas (a gin ‘advent calendar’ package), a 100% cocoa collection, and the introduction of no-sugar milky chocolate range. Hotel Chocolat makes 40% of its annual sales in the run-up to Christmas and New Year (The Telegraph, 24 Jan. ’18).
A clear, well-stated and meaningful vision must have helped Hotel Chocolat considerably in its evolution and expansion. It stands on three values people in the company believe in: (1) Originality — not playing by the rules, rather doing things differently, and being creative and innovative. (2) Authenticity — growing cocoa, making and retailing chocolate, being true to cocoa and using natural ingredients (not letting sugar dull the flavour of cocoa itself and not mask the nuances from other ingredients, in line with the mantra cited above), and developing their own recipes in-house at the factory in Cambridgeshire (award-winning). (3) Ethics — committing to a deep sense of fairness that extends to farmers, customers and future generations (i.e., not spoiling the environment with waste in all stages of production).
The description of these three values or principles seems elaborate and specific enough to offer very clear guidelines for all managers and employees in the company to go by. They are accompanied by two business or marketing goals set by Thirlwell: excite the senses with chocolate and making it widely available. The two goals help to add focus to the mission of the brand: the first seems to pertain primarily to the products, the second underlies the network of retailing through physical shops and an online store. Other activities of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., hotel, restaurants and café-bars, Tasting Club, School of Chocolate) contribute in enhancing the brand: deliver its message across and strengthen closer relationships with customers.
The business revolves around the brand ‘Hotel Chocolat’ and its development as it is their face and voice to the world. That is how customers and other stakeholders recognize everything they do. The more prestigious image of the brand is expressed through their products and packaging, primarily with their premium collections (‘tables’ — e.g., 86 pieces £65, 179 pieces £100). Pricing is also part of supporting the image, though Hotel Chocolat tries not to be excessive (e.g., one can find small-medium packages and boxes for prices in a range of £5-25). The concept of Café bars is gaining weight in aim to come closer to consumers — creating a venue where they can relax and enjoy a good chocolate drink with something light to eat (e.g., brownies) from Hotel Chocolat. The company may tap on a desire of Britons for high-quality chocolate, having a better own experience with chocolates from countries like Switzerland and Belgium. The founders protect the brand from dilution by avoiding, for example, displaying their products on shelves in supermarkets for sale (but their products are sold through concession in departments stores of John Lewis which fits better their brand image). The brand is taken care of meticulously by the founders to maintain an image they worked hard to instill: “a necessity of life, albeit a luxurious one” (Kate Burgess, opinion column, FT.com, 13 March 2016).
The brand of Hotel Chocolat has built its strength in quality of products and the expanse of its brick-and-mortar shops in addition to online retailing, supported by further activities or services. But attention must be paid to challenges ahead. First, how to balance resources correctly between keeping the quality of products and the expansion of the retail network — not falling to the trap of sacrificing the pleasure from the chocolates to their increased availability in the retail chain. Second, how to manage wisely and responsibly reaching out to other countries. In the interview to the BBC News (2014), Thirlwell concluded: “If you are specialist you have got to be absolutely specialist. There is a lot of competition and we want to be in the driving seat.” Consumers who appreciate and love genuine chocolate would surely hope that Hotel Chocolat succeeds in its mission so they can continue to enjoy their delicacies, and be excited.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)