17 December 2021


Although he may not be related to the founders of the historic Funke Chocolate Co., Creative Director Aaron Funke has an unabashed sweet tooth. Here, he sinks his teeth into consumer behaviors around indulgence in 2021…

With the average consumer’s stress levels at an all-time high over the past year, it’s little surprise that indulgent foods, confectionery, candy and treats have been flying off the shelves.

But when the pandemic dust settles, will this still be the story? How can retailers and manufacturers build brand voices and new product offerings that customers respond to even as our lifestyles change back, or change again?

We all know that sweet things should be eaten in moderation, but a yen for indulgence has recently driven customers to purchase “happy treats” in greater quantities and more often.

As an example, let’s look at chocolate…

Getting a “happy treat” was a key reason online and subscription sales surged for one of the biggest chocolate brands in the UK, high-street chocolatier Hotel Chocolat. Last month the company announced its customer database had reached 3 million customers, up 66% since the end of 2019, as overall sales showed a 34% increase in the 10 weeks to 27 June 2021 compared with pre-Covid levels. This growth prompted bosses to enthuse that the company was in the strongest position it had been “in its history”.

It was a similar story in the U.S. chocolate market, where a standout year saw sales of chocolate grow by 12% to $27 billion, according to Chocolate Candy: U.S. Market Trends and Opportunities by the market research firm Packaged Facts.

Lifestyle changes such as working from home played their part, as remote working fuelled a surge in sales of chocolate multipacks and large “sharing bars”. Although this caused an increase of just 3% up on total value of chocolate sales (UK), the amount of chocolate eaten is likely to have doubled or tripled times previous levels because the kind of chocolate bought in supermarkets is so much cheaper.

These figures of chocolate consumption are impressive, but also indicative of a wider, indulgence-driven customer base.


So what happens next?

With sales this remarkable, it naturally lead us to speculate what the impact will be as travel resumes and seeing friends and family reduces our stress levels, and as most workers head back to offices, at least part or all of the time.

As the latter occurs, relevant factors may help to bolster sales. That’s because sweet treats are an important part of the office experience, says Mintel. In fact, in the UK, almost seven in 10 sweet biscuit consumers find sharing biscuits to be a great way of bringing people together. Following months working apart, it’s predicted that consumers will be keen to begin sharing snacks again once they’ve returned to office environments.

Since sharing a box of donuts or cakes the way we did pre-pandemic is unlikely for quite some time, brands should now more than ever consider bringing to market new ways of sharing treats via individually wrapped portions, rather than larger, communal servings. As employees get to know each other again, or for the first time as a new joiner, this may become the “next sharing normal”.


The future of indulgence

There’s a growing body of research into our human relationship with indulgence. Basically, indulgence is a psychologically-driven need. As human beings we are hard-wired to become bored after continuing to eat the same foods time and again (the scientific term is sensory-specific satiety), and this benefits us from an evolutionary perspective by making us reach for different foods and thereby varying the types of nutrients, including proteins and vitamins, that we eat.

When we reach for a dessert, the sweetness within gives us a dopamine hit, rewarding our brain. So when we consume a new dessert, with flavours we haven’t experience before or in a very long time, the brain gets a double reward – avoiding sensory-specific satiety PLUS getting that chemical dopamine response in the brain.

This means that consumers’ need for indulgence will never really go away. What will change however, is how consumers merge the desire for taste indulgence with the other drivers in their lives. Chief among these is good health. Following the pandemic, more consumers than ever are vowing to focus on achieving better health and wellbeing.

Fitting indulgence into a healthy lifestyle, aka a “permissible indulgence” is fast becoming a trend. Not too many years ago, product development and marketing around permissible indulgence were focused on weight-control, largely tied to calorie-counting and more often than not linked to the brand names of prominent weight loss members clubs.

Since that time, the parameters around permissible indulgence have shifted. These days, more focus is placed on the quality, authenticity and provenance of the healthful ingredients within, as well as the sustainability factors and the ethical nature of supply chains behind the product.

In response to these trends, industry operators are focused on reformulating their offerings around healthier, high quality ingredients. Trying new flavour combinations is a core objective, as well as launching limited edition varieties that draw the attention of health-conscious consumers.


Why the packfront matters?

At Equator, photography teams (inclusive of food stylists) work hard to make every ounce of indulgence visible on the packfront. There are often necessary category cues which influence the approach a brand takes. However, invoking the senses also makes sense in a time when consumers are craving immersive food and drink experiences, and want to invigorate their lives after a challenging year cloistered inside.

The look of the packfront signals to the customer the sensory experience that’s waiting inside, which is especially important when reaching out to the youngest demographics. It’s thought that the younger the customer, the more they eat with their eyes. Younger consumers are also influenced by what they see on social media platforms such as Instagram, and this makes them more sensitive than previous generations to the appearance of what they are purchasing and consuming.

Refreshing the pack front to appeal to the senses is one step brands can take to make sure they are positioned for growth. Design which communicates texture, taste, fragrance and color can help to inspire an emotional connection and help to differentiate the product from others in the market, driving purchase intent and repeat purchasing.

Creating an all-new design architecture for a healthy sub-brand can also aid positioning, demonstrating the brand’s agility in the face of shifting consumer demand.

In short, it’s about creating a high-quality appearance which is right up to date and aligned with the objectives and forward direction of travel of the brand itself.

Humans may be hard-wired for indulgence, but brands’ relevance is not quite so perennial. It’s important they keep moving forward… if they want to get a taste of the sweet profits possible in today’s market.

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